There's been a big scare about the possibility of civil war in Iraq after a bloody terrorist attack on a Shi'ite Muslim holy site. With relief, despite a wave of violence after this event, everyone concluded that no civil war was starting now.
Yet this immediate relief should be coupled with a realistic assessment: There will almost certainly be a civil war in the not too distant future. More precisely, there already is a civil war going on that is merely masked by the presence of Western forces.
Insurgents - a blend of Saddam Hussein supporters, pro-Osama bin Laden Islamists, and Sunni communal nationalists - claim to be fighting the foreign "occupation" but are actually battling fellow Iraqis to ensure that no government led by the Shi'ite majority will succeed in ruling Iraq.
In what is still a relatively one-sided civil war, the aggressors are Sunni terrorist forces backed directly by Syria, hailed as heroes in media throughout the Arab world and receiving both volunteers and funds from abroad, especially Saudi Arabia. They attack American troops, target the Iraqi government, and often kill Shi'ite civilians. Simultaneously, they try to intimidate other Sunnis to keep them from participating in the government, or even voting. The insurgents attack when and where they choose.
On the other side are those relatively satisfied with the post-Saddam order. This includes the Kurds in the north and the Shi'ites of the center and south. These forces have come together to run the regime so far.
Yet, three long months after national elections, no government has been formed due to disagreements over who will lead it and how will offices be distributed among the parties. This is a remarkable failure.
AN ONGOING aspect of Iraqi political debates is how Sunni grievances might be addressed by giving them a greater share of power or certain specific arrangements they want (centralization rather than federalism being perhaps the critical one). It is easy to pretend that if the Sunni are only offered enough they will be satisfied and peace will reign supreme. But that is a rather thin illusion.
There are two problems with this hope that some negotiated formula will avoid or end civil war. The first is the idea that the Sunnis' goal is to feel themselves equal partners in the new Iraq. But what stirs Sunnis' passions is not a demand for equal treatment but a belief that they are the natural ruling class. Even if the Shi'ite politicians make concessions there is a point beyond which they will not go, given their own desire for authority and its benefits.
The second misconception is that the elected Sunni politicians can speak for their community. Even if the majority of Sunni Iraqis want peace and conciliation, the armed militants will not let them compromise. Any Sunni politician can be assassinated on any given day, as they are well aware. Nor is intimidation the only factor at work; Sunni leaders themselves also have strong communalist feelings.
On the Shi'ite side, even if leaders favor restraint there is still going to be enough violence and victimization of Sunnis to stir continued friction. The continuing terrorist violence against Shi'ites is stirring up hatreds that will not soon dissipate.
Why has the civil war been largely one-sided to date? Because the Shi'ite leadership has been content to let the Americans and British bear the brunt of the fighting, despite the constant provocations of terrorism.
Indeed, the Western forces have made it clear that they expect Shi'ite restraint, even demand it. For a while, the status quo suits both sides in Iraq, but this situation is not going to last very long.
IT IS ESSENTIAL to understand that the two issues underlying a future civil war are not misunderstandings or easily negotiated differences of opinion but are absolutely fundamental: Who will rule and what kind of society Iraq will be. Nice as it is to hope that everyone can get along and share power, Iraq is not the kind of society where this is likely to happen. Either the Sunnis or Shi'ites, most likely the latter, will have the upper hand.
Iraq will either be a pluralist, Islamic-flavored, Shi'ite-led state with an elected government and a large element of Kurdish autonomy in the north (perhaps the best likely alternative), a radical Shi'ite Islamist republic with lots of Iranian influence, or a radical Sunni Islamist republic. Most Iraqis think these are distinctions worth fighting for.
As long as American forces are present the civil war will probably be staved off, but the insurgency will continue. However, the days for this situation are numbered. President George W. Bush maintains that the Iraqi government forces are gradually able to take on more of the fighting.
It is widely hinted that by the second half of 2007 there will be far fewer Western troops, and the number will head downwards. Only when foreign forces have largely left will the real business begin of determining, at the barrel of a gun, the direction post-Saddam Iraq will take.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the
Middle East Review of International Affairs.