Senator finds ‘civil war’ in Iraq

A “low-grade civil war” is under way in Iraq that could erupt into full-scale war among the nation’s rival ethnic and religious groups, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., said this week.

The deadly outbreaks of violence in Baghdad over the past few days were only the latest manifestation of a civil conflict that has been going on for months, Reed said after returning from his latest visit to Iraq.

Not only does the conflict pit the Shiite Muslim-led government forces against Sunni Muslim insurgents, Reed said; it is complicated by internal battles within the Shiite and Sunni populations.

“It’s a struggle for political control in Iraq. And I think by most definitions, it’s a civil war,” said Reed. His views put him at odds with the Bush administration, which has downplayed the possibility of civil war in Iraq.

Reed and Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., who traveled with him, spoke at a U.S. Capitol news conference this week. Both men stressed that they think there have been significant military and political gains in Iraq _ particularly in the training and equipping of Iraqi forces. They said there remains a pathway to a stable, democratic Iraq _ but one full of pitfalls and requiring a greater U.S. commitment to costly economic rebuilding work.

“The situation in Iraq remains critical and the outcome remains uncertain,” Reed said. “There has been progress on the political front with the installation of a permanent and popularly elected government.” But the progress is “not irreversible nor a guarantee of ultimate stability,” he said.

The two senators repeated what they told reporters while in Iraq: U.S. military leaders and Iraqi government officials are preparing to begin a significant reduction of the American force of 130,000 in Iraq. Military officials have declined to say how many troops might leave Iraq, but Reed speculated that the early withdrawals might be “in the thousands.”

Reed, a former Army officer who sits on the Armed Services Committee, added that “a logical target” might be to gradually reduce the current force to 100,000 in the months to come.

Reed stressed, however, that he believes any such withdrawals will depend on the military conditions in Iraq. He and Biden have said that a significant U.S. force must remain in Iraq for an indefinite period to provide air and logistical support and other capacities that the Iraqis lack.

Reed and Biden depicted the dilemma for the United States and the Iraqi government as something of a vicious circle that must be broken in order to avoid a civil war or the emergence of a military “strongman” regime to quell the conflict.

“In the absence of a political solution, the Sunni insurgents are not going to stand down and the (Shiite) militia violence won’t stop,” Biden said. “We have to cut this Gordian knot. The (Shiite)-led government has to take significant steps to bring the Sunnis in, and they have to move against the (Shiite) militia and guarantee the Sunnis a share of the oil revenues.”

But Reed and Biden said Sunni-Shiite enmity has proceeded so far that it is difficult to slow. Within the Shiite community, they said, rival militias are jostling for power, severely limiting the freedom of the new prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to offer the Sunnis the kind of economic concessions that could prompt more members of the minority to support the government.

These tensions have contributed to the government’s failure, thus far, to build a functioning bureaucracy that can deliver anything more than “primitive” services to the people, Reed said. Unemployment, as a partial consequence, is huge, feeding unrest and driving young men into the various militias, Biden said, because in the militias, “they get paid.”

The senators presented the most recent outbreaks of violence, especially in the streets of Baghdad, as evidence of their theory that low-grade civil war has already begun.

One of al-Maliki’s first actions, Biden explained, was to declare a state of emergency in certain contested sectors of Baghdad and send tens of thousands of security troops to keep the peace. In addition, al-Maliki made moves to rein in such Shiite militias as the Mahdi Army.

But over the past weekend, apparently in reprisal for Sunni attacks of Shiite mosques, the militia staged a broad-daylight reprisal that, according to Reed’s theory, was partially intended as a show of force for the benefit of al-Maliki and the government.