That there should be a political controversy over whether there is a civil war in Iraq is a tribute to the Bush administration's Orwellian attention to political rhetoric. By the most widely accepted social science measure, Iraq is incontestably in a civil war.
J. David Singer and his collaborators at the University of Michigan (where I also teach) have studied dozens of such conflicts and have offered a thorough and widely adopted definition of civil war. It is:
"Sustained military combat, primarily internal, resulting in at least 1,000 battle-deaths per year, pitting central government forces against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance, determined by the latter's ability to inflict upon the government forces at least 5 percent of the fatalities that the insurgents sustain." (Errol A. Henderson and J. David Singer, "Civil War in the Post-Colonial World, 1946-92," Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 37, No. 3, May 2000.)
The definition focuses on three main dimensions of civil war: that it is fought within a country rather than between states; that it is fought between insurgent forces and the state; and that the insurgent forces offer effective resistance.
The Iraqi central government is pitted against an insurgent force capable of effective resistance. Some 50 distinct cells, spanning the political spectrum from secular Arab nationalists to religious fundamentalists, direct the activities of at least 20,000 to 30,000 part-time guerrillas, and perhaps many more. They strike regularly throughout seven key center-north provinces, including Baghdad, which at 6 million persons contains a fourth of the inhabitants of Iraq. In civil wars, the violence is staccato and almost random. Journalists or bloggers who visit Iraq and find bustling bazaars and brisk traffic are often fooled by their naiveté into thinking that the violence has been exaggerated. But it should be remembered that boys went swimming and fished not far from where the battle of Gettysburg was being fought in the U.S. Civil War. Guerrilla violence does not need to be omnipresent to effectively disrupt the society.
Singer and other social scientists working on the Correlates of War Project at the University of Michigan find that civil wars are associated with low levels of economic development in postcolonial states, with what they call semi-democracy as opposed to full democracy, and with high levels of military spending. It is not clear, however, that once they have begun, such civil wars can be settled through small-scale political compromise.
To be sure, the civil war in Iraq could be more acute. Nonetheless, Iraq is in civil war, as social scientists define it. We have a good notion of how it fell into civil war, and the responsibility the U.S. bears for that outcome. What remains unknown is whether the Bush administration can do anything effective about it. The relative passivity of U.S. forces during the sectarian riots after the Golden Shrine was destroyed, and Rumsfeld's startling pledge that the U.S. military would stay out of civil war-type conflicts, do not inspire faith that it can.
Indeed not. Given how long it took the Bush gang to admit that the insurgency was in fact an insurgency, I figure we've got at least another six months to a year until Bush's fortress of truthiness is finally penetrated by the barbarian hordes of inescapable fact.