Following the U.S.-launched 2003 invasion of Iraq, the situation deteriorated, and by 2007, the conflict between Iraqi Sunni and Shi'a factions was described by the National Intelligence Estimate as having elements of a civil war. In a January 10, 2007 address to the American people, President George W. Bush stated that "80% of Iraq's sectarian violence occurs within of the capital. This violence is splitting Baghdad into sectarian enclaves, and shaking the confidence of all Iraqis. Two polls of Americans conducted in 2006 found that between 65% to 85% believed Iraq was in a civil war; however, a similar poll of Iraqis conducted in 2007 found that 61% did not believe that they were in a civil war.
In October 2006, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Iraqi government estimated that more than 365,000 Iraqis had been displaced since the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque, bringing the total number of Iraqi refugees to more than 1.6 million. By 2008, the UNHCR raised the estimate of refugees to a total of about 4.7 million (~16% of the population). The number of refugees estimated abroad was 2 million (a number close to CIA projections) and the number of internally displaced people was 2.7 million. In 2007, Iraq's anti-corruption board reported that 35% of Iraqi children, or about five million children, were orphans. The Red Cross has also stated that Iraq's humanitarian situation remains among the most critical in the world, with millions of Iraqis forced to rely on insufficient and poor-quality water sources.
According to the Failed States Index, produced by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, Iraq has remained one of the world's five most unstable states in since 2005. A poll of top U.S. foreign policy experts conducted in 2007 showed that over the next 10 years, just 3% of experts believed the U.S. would be able to rebuild Iraq into a beacon of democracy and 58% of experts believed that Sunni-Shiite tensions would dramatically increase in the Middle East.
In June 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that "the security, political and economic trends in Iraq continue to be positive; however, they remain fragile, reversible and uneven. In July 2008, the audit arm of the U.S. Congress recommended that the U.S. Government should "develop an updated strategy for Iraq that defines U.S. goals and objectives after July 2008 and addresses the long-term goal of achieving an Iraq that can govern, defend, and sustain itself". Steven Simon, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in May 2008 that "the recent short-term gains" had "come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq.
The Sunni insurgency has used sectarian violence to capitalize on Sunni fears of the Shi'a majority and the Shi'a armed militias have shown a zeal for vigilante justice. However, there are other sectarian divisions of the population
that lay in nearly a dozen distinct groups. These groups are subdivided into countless smaller factions.
The sectarian divisions can be divided into several main ideological or ethnic strands:
- Arab : - 75 - 80% : The bulk of the Iraqi population that is divided along Islamic religious lines.
- Kurdish - 15 - 20% : De facto independent administration (mostly secular Sunnis, small Shi'ite, Yazidi, and other elements, but with a heavily secular government).
- Assyrian - 3% : This group has a minor role in the current situation.
- Turkoman - 2% : This group has a minor role in the current situation, although Turkey is concerned about their overall treatment in Iraq.
- Muslim - 97% : This is the primary religion in Iraq and serves as one of the primary sectarian distinctions.
- Shi'ite - 60 - 65% : Mainly Arabs with a very small minority of Kurds and Turkoman .
- Sunni - 32 -37% : Split almost even with Kurds and Arabs. It is important to understand that Sunni Islam is not a monolithic force, and historic divisions between Sunni schools of religious law persist, usually running along ethnic and tribal lines.
- Christian,Mandaeans and Yazidi ~ 3% : These groups have a minor role in the current situation.
The Arab-Sunni faction and the Arab-Shi'ite are the main two participants in the violence, but conflicts within a single group have occurred. Iran, it has been conjectured, would assist the Shiites. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq, with Iran helping the Shi'ite and Arab nations helping the Sunni, is a possibility. A senior American official has said that during a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in November 2006, the king said that if U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, the Saudis would be forced to support the Sunni minority.
The Kurds are caught between the two religious groups, but as they are an ethnicity opposed to religious movement, they are often at odds with the Sunni Arabs that were settled in Iraqi Kurdistan by Saddam's Arabization policy. Kurds also sympathise with Shi'ites as Saddam's Sunni regime persecuted both communities. Blurring this cohesion, though, are division of social, economic, political and geographic identities.
Groups known and alleged to take part in the sectarian violence
A multitude of groups form the Iraqi Insurgency which arose in a piecemeal fashion as a reaction to local events and notably the realisation of the U.S. military’s inability to control Iraq. Since 2005 the insurgent forces have largely merged around several main factions, including the Islamic Army in Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna. Religious justification has been used to support the political actions of these groups as well as a marked adherence to Salafism which brands those against the jihad as non believers. This approach has played a role in the rise of sectarian violence. The U.S. military also believe that between 5-10% of insurgent forces are non-Iraqi Arabs.
Independent Shi'ite militias have identified themselves around sectarian ideology and possess various levels of influence and power. There is a strand of militia who were founded in exile and returned to Iraq only after the toppling of Saddam Hussein such as the Badr Organization. There are also militias created since the state collapse, the largest and most uniform of which is the Mahdi Army established by Moqtada al-Sadr and believed to have around 50,000 fighters. Although their participation in the religious terrorism is not universal, the individual members of these militias are known to take part in the attacks on the Sunni and other non-Shia civilians.
The Kurdish militias of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) are the most disciplined.
Conflict and tactics
Some analysts suspect that the aim of these attacks is to show chaos and sectarian discord. The attacks on non-military and civilian targets began in earnest in August 2003. Iraqi casualties have increased since then.
Bomb and mortar attacks
The bomb attacks aimed at civilians usually target crowded places such as marketplaces and mosques in the Shi'ite cities and districts. The bombings, which are sometimes co-ordinated, often inflict extreme casualties.
For example, the 23 November 2006 Sadr City bombings killed at least 215 people and injured hundreds more in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, sparking reprisal attacks, or the 3 February 2007 Baghdad market bombing which killed at least 135 and injured more than 300, while the co-ordinated 2 March 2004 Iraq Ashura bombings (including car bombs, suicide bombers and mortar, grenade and rocket attacks) killed at least 178 people and injured at least 500.
Since August 2003, suicide car bombs
have been increasingly used as weapons by Sunni militants, primarily al-Qaeda
extremists. The car bombs, known in the military as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices
(IEDs), have emerged as one of their most effective weapons, directed not only against civilian targets but also against the mainly-Shi'ite Iraqi police stations and recruiting centers.
These vehicle IEDs are often driven by the extremists from the foreign Muslim countries with a history of militancy, such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, and Pakistan.
-style killings in Iraq have taken place in a variety of ways. Kidnapping
, followed by often extreme torture
(such as drilling holes in peoples feet with drills
) and execution-style killings
, sometimes public (in some cases, beheadings
), have emerged as another tactic. In some cases, tapes of the execution are distributed for propaganda
purposes. The bodies are usually dumped on a roadside or in other places, several at a time. There were also several relatively large-scale massacre
, like the Hay al Jihad massacre
in which some 40 Sunnis were killed in a response to the car bombing which killed a dozen of Shi'ites.
The death squads are often disgruntled Shi'ites, including members of the security forces, who kill Sunnis to avenge the consequences of the insurgency against American occupation and the Shi'ite-dominated government.
Attacks and occupations on places of worship
On February 22 2006
, the highly provocative explosion took place at the al-Askari Mosque
in the Iraqi city of Samarra
, one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam, believed to have been caused by a bomb planted by al-Qaeda in Iraq
. Although no injuries occurred in the blast, the mosque was severely damaged and the bombing resulted in violence over the following days. Over 100 dead bodies with bullet holes were found on the next day, and at least 165 people are thought to have been killed. In the aftermath of this attack the U.S. military calculated that the average homicide rate in Baghdad tripled from 11 to 33 deaths per day.
Dozens of Iraqi mosques were since attacked or taken-over by the sectarian terrorists. For example, a Sunni mosque was burnt in the southern Iraqi town of Haswa on March 25 2007, in the revenge for the destruction of a Shia mosque in the town the previous day. In several cases, Christian churches were also attacked by the extremists. Later, another al-Askari bombing took place in June 2007.
Iraq's Christian minority also has become a target because of conflicting theological ideas.
Some Iraqi service members have deserted
the military or the police and others have refused to serve in hostile areas. For example, some members of one sect have refused to serve in neighborhoods dominated by other sects. The ethnic Kurdish soldiers from northern Iraq, who are mostly Sunnis but not Arabs, were also reported to be deserting the army to avoid the civil strife in Baghdad, a conflict they consider someone else's problem.
For more information on events in a specific year, see the associated timeline page.
Potential effects of the sectarian attacks
An article in The Washington Post
, published on August 20
, reported that a full-blown Iraq civil war might result in the death of hundreds of thousands of people and turn millions of people into refugees. The ethnic unrest could also spill over to the rest of the region, with "copycat secession attempts" in neighbouring countries, such as Kuwait
, and Lebanon
, as these countries have similar ethnic diversity. Citing the history of Taliban
and Rwandan Patriotic Front
as examples, the report warned that refugee camps often become a sanctuary and recruiting ground for militias, thus spreading the conflict to a wider area. Civil war could lead to increased radicalism and terrorism: Hezbollah
and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam
were formed as a result of civil wars. Based on lessons learned from the Lebanese and Bosnian civil wars, the report predicted that if an all-out civil war were to break out in Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition would require 450,000 troops to quash it.
An article in The International Herald Tribune, published on November 26, 2006, paraphrased a report from a group of American professors at Stanford University that the insurgency in Iraq amounted to the classic definition of a civil war.
Growth in refugee flight
By 2008, the UNHCR raised the estimate of refugees to a total of about 4.7 million, with 2 million displaced internally and 2.7 million displaced externally. In April 2006 the Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimated that "nearly 70,000 displaced Iraqis, especially from the capital, are living in deteriorating conditions,” due to ongoing sectarian violence. Roughly 40% of Iraq's middle class
is believed to have fled, the U.N. said. Most are fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return. Refugees are mired in poverty
as they are generally barred from working in their host countries. A May 25, 2007 article notes that in the past seven months only 69 people from Iraq have been granted refugee status
in the United States
Use of "civil war" label
of the United States Senate
, Dick Durbin
, referred to "this civil war in Iraq" in a criticism of George W. Bush's January 10
, President's Address to the Nation.
An unclassified summary of the 90-page January 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, titled Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead, states the following regarding the use of the term "civil war":
- The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.
A poll of over 5,000 Iraqi nationals found that 27% of polled Iraqi residents agreed that Iraq was in a civil war, while 61% thought Iraq was not. Two similar polls of Americans conducted in 2006 found that between 65% to 85% believed Iraq was in a civil war.
Retired United States Army General Barry McCaffrey issued a report on March 26, 2007, after a trip and analysis of the situation in Iraq. The report labeled the current situation a "low-grade civil war.
From page 3 of the report:
- "Iraq is ripped by a low-grade civil war which has worsened to catastrophic levels with as many as 3000 citizens murdered per month. The population is in despair. Life in many of the urban areas is now desperate. A handful of foreign fighter (500+)--and a couple thousand Al Qaeda operatives incite open factional struggle through suicide bombings which target Shia holy places and innocent civilians...The police force is feared as a Shia militia in uniform which is responsible for thousands of extra-judicial killings."
- Refugees Report " The Iraqi Displacement Crisis" March 2008.
- United States Dept. of Homeland Security Fact Sheet on admitting Iraqi refugees to the United States March 2008.
- Sami Ramadani interview " Iraq is not a civil war" Spring 2007.
- Taheri, Amir. "'' There is no Civil War in Iraq, Gulf News, December 6, 2006.
- Phillips, David L., " Federalism can prevent Iraq civil war", July 20, 2005.
- Hider, James, " Weekend of slaughter propels Iraq towards all-out civil war", July 18, 2005.
- Ramadani, Sami, " Occupation and Civil War", UK Guardian, July 8, 2005.
- Phelps, Timothy M., " Experts: Iraq Verges on Civil War". Newsday, 12 May, 2005.
- Strobel, Warren P., and Jonathan S. Landay, " CIA Officers Warn of Iraq Civil War, Contradicting Bush's Optimism", Knight-Ridder, January 22, 2004.
- " US exit may lead to Iraqi civil war", November 19, 2003.
- Dunnigan, James, " The Coming Iraqi Civil War", April 4, 2003