Civil War

Why Not Call Iraq a Civil War?

By Erica Chenoweth

Another suicide truck bomber blew himself up in northern Iraq today. Having noticed an awful lot of these incidents lately, this news prompted me to investigate how many people have been killed in Iraq in recent months. According to Iraq Body Count, there have been over 6,000 fatalities in Iraq this year alone.

By most political science standards, Iraq is in the middle of a civil war. But few people openly call it a civil war. Why not?

I am reminded of Severine Autesserre’s work on narratives of post-conflict peacekeeping. Although there are lots of obvious differences with DRC (including the lack of an active peacekeeping operation), one thing is strikingly similar. In both cases, international combatants or observers treat the civil war as over despite ample evidence that violent conflict was still very much alive.

Americans today tend to think of Iraq as a “post-conflict” situation. Maybe this is easy to do since US combat operations ended there a few years ago, even though there have been unacceptably high levels of violence there before, during, and after the US withdrawal. As Autesserre points out in her award-winning research, when people begin to think of conflicts as functionally “over,” it is difficult for them to reconcile news of continued hostilities. Instead, they tend to write off such incidents as “normal” levels of violence in countries “emerging” from conflict. Indeed, people often begin to enter into such intense levels of denial about the return of civil war that they begin to rationalize the violence with essentialist narratives such as “in Iraq, people are more violent,” “this is just frontier violence,” or “this is just residual score-settling that will die down eventually.”

Obviously such narratives absolve regional and international players from any responsibility, placing the blame squarely on the “innate violence of the society” rather than on the reality that many of the most important underlying determinants of the prior civil war are totally unresolved.

Calling the violence in Iraq a civil war may help to bring international attention to Iraq’s ongoing violence — as well as the Iraqi government’s inability to bring it to a close. But if Autesserre is right, we shouldn’t expect such recognition any time soon. Instead, violence in Iraq has become the new normal.

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