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March 14, 2006

"Civil War" Semantics

What exactly is "civil war" and is Iraq really edging closer to it?

Iraqi authorities discovered at least 87 corpses — men shot to death execution-style — as Iraq edged closer to open civil warfare. Twenty-nine of the bodies, dressed only in underwear, were dug out of a single grave Tuesday in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad.

. . .

Police began unearthing bodies early Monday, although the discoveries were not immediately reported. The gruesome finds continued throughout the day Tuesday, police said, marking the second wave of sectarian retribution killings since bombers destroyed an important Shiite shrine last month.

In the mayhem after the golden dome atop the Askariya shrine in Samarra was destroyed on Feb. 22, more than 500 people have been killed, many of them Sunni Muslims and their clerics. Dozens of mosques were damaged or destroyed.

Underlining the unease in the capital, Interior Ministry officials announced another driving ban, from 8 p.m. Wednesday to 4 p.m. Thursday to protect against car and suicide bombs while the Iraqi parliament meets for the first session since the Dec. 15 election.

Okay. Sounds like there's been some violence. Nothing new there. The government is taking steps to limit further violence. Also to be expected. But where is the support for the assertion that this recent violence is something new ― something different than the insurgency that has been going on since 2003?

People are throwing the term "civil war" around a lot lately, and I think it's interesting that nobody defines what that means. So I looked to that unassailable source, the Wikipedia, which has this to say:

A civil war is a war in which parties within the same country or empire struggle for national control of state power. As in any war, the conflict may be over other matters such as religion, ethnicity, or distribution of wealth. Some civil wars are also categorized as revolutions when major societal restructuring is a possible outcome of the conflict. An insurgency, whether successful or not, is likely to be classified as a civil war by some historians if, and only if, organized armies fight conventional battles. Other historians state the criteria for a civil war is that there must be prolonged violence between organized factions or defined regions of a country (conventionally fought or not). In simple terms, a Civil War is a war in which a country fights another part of itself. [links omitted]
More enlightenment can be found in the classic text, The American Constitution, Its Origins And Development, which describes the semantic issue in the context of the American Civil War:
An insurrection is legally construed to be an organized and armed uprising for public political purposes; it may seek to overthrow the government, or it may seek merely to suppress certain laws or to alter administrative practice. A rebellion in general is considered to have a much more highly developed political and military organization than an insurrection; in international law it conveys belligerent status. Generally, such belligerent status implies that the belligerent government is attempting by war to free itself from the jurisdiction of the parent state, that it has an organized de facto government, that it is in control of at least some territory, and that it has sufficient proportions to render the issue of the conflict in doubt. An international war, on the other hand, is one between two or more independent states who are recognized members of the family of nations.

In international law the rights of parties to an armed conflict vary greatly with their status. Insurgents have a very limited status; they are not mere pirates or bandits, but their activities do not constitute 'war' in the de jure sense, and they cannot claim against neutrals the privileges of the laws of war. A full rebellion, on the other hand, is a 'war' so far as international law is concerned and the rebel government possesses all the belligerent rights of a fully recognized international state, toward both neutrals and the parent state. Needless to say, a parent state may attempt by force to suppress either an insurrection or a rebellion. In domestic law rebels may be criminals in the eyes of the parent state, and answerable to its courts if their movement fails. (Kelly, Harbison and Belz, The American Constitution, Its Origins And Development, 1955, 6th ed. at pp. 306-07.)

In the American Civil War, the Confederacy tried to define the conflict as an international war. Obviously, the Federals tried to define it as an insurrection. In truth, it was a rebellion. But the historic distinctions are interesting when applied to what's going on in Iraq.

I think it's clear that there is no civil war yet, by any accepted definition of the term. Can it happen? Perhaps, but there would need to be a lot more organization on the part of the al Qaeda and Baathists who are currently running the opposition. I think that's a long way off. Right now, it's just an ad hoc campaign of violence, much like a gang war, with no clearly articulated end other than to chase the US out.

Posted by annika, Mar. 14, 2006 | TrackBack (0)
Rubric: annikapunditry