Part of a global pattern? The debate that currently rages as to whether or not Iraq has descended into civil war is, of course, purely academic to the ordinary Iraqis who find themselves suffering under the weight of the conflict, whatever name the politicians choose to give it. But in the world of international diplomacy, such distinctions are important.

Author:Seymour, Richard

THE ADMISSION THAT IRAQ IS IN THE grip of all-out civil war would also be an admission of failure for the American-led allies whose vision of a peaceful post-Saddam Hussein Iraq was key to the selling of the invasion to their respective people.

However, the continuing dismissal of the ongoing violence as mere 'disorder' will serve to damage the credibility of those who deny it is more than that. And with goodwill in short supply, and mounting tension between Iran and the West, a loss of credibility may prove fatal.

There is, also, a further reason for being sure of how to define the problems facing Iraq: clearly defining the conflict helps to determine a clear strategy for ending it.

But what exactly constitutes a civil war? Naturally opinions differ. America's 18th-century battle for independence began, by definition, as an insurgency against British rule and only later became known as a revolution.

Clearly, there are two opposing groups within Iraq today--the minority Sunnis and the majority Shias--but can it be said that the two sides are engaging in open conflict?

It is the Sunnis who are most actively targeting Shias, while the Shias, for the most part, have exercised restraint in the face of the provocation. While admirable, there is an obvious political motive behind their reluctance to retaliate.

The Shias have come to dominate the newly formed government after spending so long under the Sunni thumb of Saddam Hussein. As a group, they stand to lose from an all-out conflict with the Sunnis. So long as the government remains intact, the Shias have no reason to take up arms. For the insurgents among the Sunnis, however, only chaos means increasing levels of influence.

There are those, including former Iraq prime minister Iyad Allawi, who believe the country has already descended into civil war. However, others who put forward this opinion have been accused by some of using the sectarian violence to further their own political agenda.

Those who disagree with this view insist the Shia population remains committed to the political process and is not retaliating en masse. They also point to the fact that, in a civil war, family members are set against each other; neighbours attack neighbours and government authority breaks down totally. This, they say correctly, is not happening.

But how does the conflict in Iraq compare to recent civil wars? The most notable example of a modern-day civil war is the break up of the former Yugoslavia. The...

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