Discussion of late in media and government circles about whether or not Iraq is "on the brink" of civil war or will ultimately experience a "genuine civil war" has become quite surreal. All of this pondering and ruminating demonstrates the fundamental myopia of American observers of Iraq, an incapacity to see past any model in which all Iraqi actions must be understood as a response to the US occupation. If a wake-up call on this score was needed the attack on the Golden Mosque in Samarra should have sufficed. Right now virtually every action undertaken by political players in Iraq is directed at other Iraqis, not the US. Even attacks on US soldiers are part of larger maneuvering to acquire purchase as the Iraqi political field realigns itself. Call it anything you like- "civil war," "internal conflict," "the Grand Waltz"- by any name the fundamental contest right now is between the Iraqis themselves, the US is largely an interested bystander.
If the Golden Mosque attack was not enough, Saddam Hussein's cynical comments at trial yesterday should be a clear indication of just how little the US factors into the current political calculations of Iraqi combatants. Hussein's call upon Iraqis to stop fighting one-another and turn their guns on the US is not only farcical but disingenuous. A report just published by the US army shows that up to the last hours of his regime Hussein remained far more fearful of his fellow Iraqis than he was of the US. Hussein's top commanders operated under the assumption that they would have access to secret stockpiles of chemical weapons. They were shocked to find out that no such stockpiles existed, and that Hussein had refused to admit as much only out of fear of uprisings in the Shi'ite south. Hussein's bluster at trial is as empty as the stockpiles of WMD's for which he was overthrown, he knows from personal experience that Iraqi factions' fear and enmity of one-another will ultimately trump their concern about the US.
The only salient questions about the current Iraqi-on-Iraqi conflict are a)how intense and destructive it will become; b)how it will ultimately be resolved. Outside groups like the US, Iran, and foreign jihadis can exert some limited influence with regard to the former question, but have virtually no control over the latter. Right now the battle lines are basically drawn between those who oppose the emergent government in Baghdad and those who accept it. Anti-government forces remain "underground," irregular, and technologically unsophisticated. There are as yet no standing "anti-government militias," nor are there likely to be as long as US forces remain in Iraq. It is uncertain, however, whether such militias might not spring into existence as soon as the US troop presence falls below a critical level. Even if such an event did not occur, having no standing militias has not prevented the anti-government insurgency from waging a horrifically violent and destabilizing campaign of terror.
In other words, the best case scenario is that the conflict in Iraq remains basically bipolar along current lines and at current levels of violence. Pronouncing that this situation is "not a civil war" is both cold comfort to those who are living through it and little help toward planning for future policy. Moreover, as "tolerable" as the current situation may be, it is very difficult to predict with any assurance that it will not get much worse. Groups that are currently participating in the political process may decide to break away and take a violently independent stand. Any number of scenarios are possible: the Mahdi Army vs. the government vs. Sunni insurgents; SCIRI vs. the Mahdi Army vs. the government vs. Sunni insurgents; SCIRI vs. the government vs. Sunni insurgents vs. the Kurdish pesh murga etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum. The conflict could quickly degenerate into a fluid multipolar bloodbath akin to what Lebanon experienced in the 1980's. The key fact in contemplating all these variables is that none of these developments hinge upon how Iraqis feel about the US, all will be determined by how much (or how little) Iraqis trust and are willing to cooperate with one-another.
Being that the US has virtually no control over this latter condition, US policymakers should give up asking purely semantic questions such as "is this/will this become a civil war?" and begin focussing on what are the likeliest long-term outcomes in Iraq given the intrinsic conditions of Iraqi society and politics. In other words, no matter how violent the conflict becomes or how long it persists, what forces are likely to emerge intact once the situation stabilizes? Answering this question requires relinquishing the illusion that the US may control the long-term evolution of the Iraqi political field. Perfect predictions are impossible, but the clearest guide of what will emerge as Iraq moves forward is the state of Iraqi society and politics prior to the US invasion.
The career of Saddam Hussein provides one model of a stable homeastasis toward which Iraqi politics has gravitated in the past- an authoritarian oligarchy centered on the kinship and clan ties of a single family. That formation is not likely to recur, as the conditions which helped it gestate (the rise of the Ba'ath Party, the Cold War) are gone. The breakup of Iraq or the absorption of parts of Iraq into Iran are also unlikely, otherwise they might have occured earlier during the Iran-Iraq war.
One key figure to watch at present is Moqtada al-Sadr, as more than anyone else he excercises an authority which germinated in the social and political conditions of pre-invasion Iraq. The only person that might surpass al-Sadr in that claim is the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, but his authority is rooted in ancient tradition where Moqtada's represents a very current response to events and circumstances in present-day Iraq. The Sadrist movement is an extraordinary phenomenon in the history of the Arab Sh'ia community. Oppression and economic hardship combined with the charismatic leadership (and violent demise) of Moqtada's father and uncle have caused a volatile millenarian movement to coalesce among his followers. Moqtada himself does not bear any of the standard credentials of a regular Shi'ite cleric, his leadership rests entirely on the charismatic legacy of his family and the millenarian fervor of his adherents. Though novel, the deep-rootedness of al-Sadr's authority is demonstrated by his remarkable durability- he remains a key player in Iraqi politics despite having led two rebellions against the US occupation.
A close examination of al-Sadr's post-occupation career reveals the precariousness of religious leaders withn the Iraqi political field and provide a potential barometer of the fortunes of the emergent government. In the wake of the humiliation of Ba'athism Islamic religion enjoys the broadest political prestige in the wider Iraqi community, greater even than that of the emergent government and the democratic processes of which it partakes. Neither the orthodox Shi'ite clergy or Sadr's maverick community, however, stand a real chance of emerging victorious from a total contest of "all against all." Sectarian distinctions make religion as potentially divisive as it is motivational in Iraqi society, thus strategically handicapping any leader who would appeal to religion as a key to mass-mobilization.
Of all the leaders appealing to religious rhetoric and authority al-Sadr enjoyed the potential to ride his religious message the furthest, if anyone ever stood a chance of forging an Iraqi "theocracy" he did. I confess to a degree of speculation, but in much of al-Sadr's rhetoric I perceive the possibility that he was flirting with a politically instrumental act of apostasy. He seems to have envisioned a break with orthodox Shi'a and the formation of a "third way" predicated on the charismatic legacy of his own family, a new Islamic community which could integrate both Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs and disaggregate (this is key) itself from the non-Arab clerical community of Iran. Such a community would have been a very powerful force, one that could potentially have emerged victorious if a political collapse in Iraq had become severe enough.
That possibility (admittedly remote) seems to have been precluded by the Samarra mosque bombing. The bombing incited a spontaneous and brutally violent wave of anti-Sunni retribution from al-Sadr's followers. Al-Sadr himself would have been powerless to rein in his followers in the wake of the Samarra atrocity, and the resulting rift of bad blood is not likely to be bridgeable by any act of apostasy. That attack and much of the gratuitous anti-Shi'ite violence seems, in part, to have aimed at just this result- to prevent either Moqtada al-Sadr or anyone else from formulating a religious message that can bring disparate forces together across the sectarian divide.
All this is to say that the strategic valence of the Iraqi conflict is conditioned by forces that the US cannot control and to which the US is largely irrelevant. Al-Sadr's decision to remain within the political process indicates that, for the moment, the emergent Iraqi government enjoys the greatest chances of rallying the critical mass of support necessary to survive and impose a resolution in the current conflict. Al-Sadr may yet break from the government, but that decision is more likely to arise from a prior weakening of the government (through corruption or in-fighting) than to be its cause. Though this gives some cause for optimism, the very fact that the continued legitimacy and stability of the government hinges on al-Sadr's participation (and others much like him) indicates that in its final form it may be far from the model of liberal democracy hoped for by the Bush regime.
What should be clear is that the complexity of the situation in Iraq is such that the US presence cannot induce a particular or predictable outcome. The degree of violence in Iraq may rise steeply in the wake of a US withdrawal, but the resulting outcome of that violence is not likely to be very different than it would be had the US stayed longer. The ultimate fate of Iraq lies in the hands of Iraqis, the best policy the US can hope for is to help the Iraqis get wherever they are going with as little bloodshed as possible.