Calling the tragedy in Iraq a "civil war" is not only inaccurate. It is morally indefensible, laying the blame for the horrific violence and the destruction of a country and a society upon the victims of an illegal, aggressive war. It allows pundits like Thomas Friedman to claim that the country has been dysfunctional for a millenium, ignoring a long historical context of international support for Iraq's brutal dictator, debilitating and murderous sanctions by the United Nations, and a catastrophic and unprovoked US-led invasion of a sovereign state. More important, if Americans believe that Iraq is in "civil war," liberals would argue that the United States must remain in order to prevent an even worse outbreak of violence.
Iraq is not undergoing a civil war. The country is in the throes of an anti-occupation struggle. Having declared, with the installation of the current government, that Iraq is no longer occupied, the US government and media can hardly frame the current violence as a struggle against a continuing occupation. Nonetheless, what is being cast as civil war is the latest example in a long line of peoples' fighting against occupation, struggles in which those groups who collaborate with an occupier are themselves targeted by those seeking to end an occupation. Algerians fighting the French also attacked the those indigenous forces who had allied themselves with France. Moroccans targeted the goumiers, local troops who worked with the French in suppressing a rebellion against foreign control. The Vietcong fought not only Americans, but also the Vietnamese who collaborated with the occupation. Zulu Inkatha were targeted for working on behalf of South Africa's white government. Irish nationalists linked Protestants with the British occupiers. The occupiers tried to present each as an example of the intrinsic and intractable violence of these societies, which provided yet another example of their continuing need for the benevolent protection of the occupation.
Framing the Iraq tragedy as civil war forces the US media to ignore the clear inconsistencies. Shi'ite forces under Muqtada al-Sadr attack the forces of a Shi'ite-led government. News reports day after day describe terrible attacks against civilian populations, with no coverage at all of violence against American forces. Where are our mounting casualties coming from? The BBC writes that eighty percent of attacks are against the occupation forces, not against civilian targets. Iraqi targets are often people either directly collaborating or trying to collaborate with the occupation (local police and military recruits), and people whose continuing work allows the current government to function. The apparent contradiction in which Iraqis would attack those who allow the hospitals, schools, and services to continue is comprehensible only in the context of an anti-occupation struggle where an insurgency tries to prevent the functioning of a government installed by an occupation army.
The United States exacerbated ethnic conflict in Iraq in order to refocus a growing anti-occupation insurgency, beginning with our arming Shi'ites to help us attack Sunni forces in Fallujah. Even then, some Shi'ites came to the aid of the Sunnis in a clear rejection of US efforts to divide the country. The militias introduced into the Iraqi Interior Ministry during the era of John Negroponte (accused of eliciting the same behavior in 1980s Honduras) have unquestionably engaged in sectarian killings. It is impossible to argue that sectarian violence has no history in Iraq; nonetheless, despite Saddam Hussein's efforts to expel some Shi'ites during the 1980s, Sunnis and Shi'is continued to marry each other, to be members of the same tribes, and to live in the same neighborhoods.
Sectarian violence has increased dramatically during the United States occupation of Iraq. The occupation has only exacerbated the violence. The reasons are consistent with countless historical examples. Occupiers try to divide the country in order to keep their opposition weak. And those who would resist occupation invariably attack those who would collaborate with the occupation. Iraqis will only become more and more divided the longer the United States remains in their country. The notion that we could stabilize Iraq and leave a viable government is absurd when looked at historically. Governments in power during occupation, collaborators with occupation forces, are most often overthrown when the occupiers leave. Whenever US forces leave, Iraqis will have to struggle to create their own state. The sooner we leave, the fewer people will have been compromised by their connection with our occupation. Had we ended our occupation at the end of 2003 before the siege of Fallujah, or had we left Iraq in February 2006 before the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Iraqis could have begun to reconstruct their own government and infrastructure without the horrific inter-communal violence that is now escalating daily. Our occupation has hardly prevented chaos and civil war, and leaving today would not miraculously end the violence that has been building over the past three years. But our immediate departure would allow Iraqis to get on with reconstruction without the polarizing presence of a continuing occupation. If we insist on staying, we will preside over the remainder of the annihilation of the state we have worked, for decades, to destroy.
(Sarah Shields teaches the history of the Middle East at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. This piece appeared originally in CommonDreams.org