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Civil War Still a Possibility in Iraq

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I have been meaning to write a post recently concerning mutterings I've been hearing from individuals with experience in Iraq about the very real possibility that Iraq may be in store for another civil war. Yesterday's coordinated attacks by insurgents are a chilling sign that it is far too soon to be breathing sighs of relief over the state of Iraq. The bombings that occurred on Tuesday took place over the course of two hours in 13 different cities, including Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Basra, Karbala, Mosul and Kut. If these names sound familiar, they should, as they have been the sites of some of the most heavy insurgent activity over the last seven years. These attacks represent three main points: 1. That the insurgency is still alive; 2. They still maintain an organizational capability that allows them to coordinate attacks all across Iraq; and 3. The insurgents are still in possession of a great deal of explosives.

While the Iraqi government and U.S. forces both estimate the Iraqi insurgency to number only in the hundreds, these malign actors are not the main focus of concern for people who have been observing Iraq closely these past few years. Politics and ethnic divides are far more likely to split Iraq than the actions of a few well-armed fanatics.

The most likely fault line for civil war in Iraq is the oil rich city of Kirkuk. The majority shiite population of Iraq strongly favors having all the countries' oil revenues come under the control of the central government, which is of course mostly controlled by Shiites. The Kurds residing in Northern Iraq have for years now claimed Kirkuk as the capital of their state within a state, and they are vehemently opposed to the Iraqi government infringing upon their chief revenue stream. The Kurds have for years now been silently (or not so silently if you live there) ethnically cleansing Kirkuk of Sunni and Shiite Arabs alike. The Kurdish paramilitary force, the Peshmerga, while distinctly smaller than the Iraqi military, would still be capable of making a stand against the Iraqi state should there be a showdown over the sovereignty of Kirkuk and its mineral wealth. Should such a conflict lead to the Kurds declaring an independent state, this would only serve to make matters worse, as such a declaration would surely force Turkey to get involved militarily, seeing as how they have been dealing with their own Kurdish uprising for decades.

Another likely source of trouble in Iraq's near future is the rumored return of the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who for the past several years has been in self imposed exile in Iran where he has been studying to become an Ayatollah (I am told he is still very far away from deserving such a title). A recent article in Foreign Policy magazine entitled "The King of Iraq" highlights the immense amount of power Sadr is still capable of wielding in Iraq. However, the article is poorly titled, as Sadr is much more a king maker than he is a king. Iraq's deposed and yet still sitting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki owed his election to Sadr's support. He also likely owes his latest electoral defeat to the fact that Sadr turned on him after the Iraqi government started allowing the U.S. military to attack Sadr's Mahdi army.

We must now ask ourselves what happens if Sadr returns to Iraq intent on seeing his candidates placed in the positions of greatest power within the Iraqi government. Iraq's Sunni population is not likely going to take such a grab for power lying down. Memories of Mahdi Army death squads killing Sunni's in hospitals as a result of Sadr controlling the Ministry of the Interior are still fresh in the minds of most Sunnis. But if Sadr does not get his way, it is a very real possibility that we will see a resurgence of the Mahdi army, which it is important to point out, was never disbanded or disarmed despite the fleeing of its leader to Iran.

Other theories for what may lay ahead in Iraq's future include: the resurgence of another strong man dictatorial government, increasing power plays by Iran, or god forbid another ethnic conflict between Sunnis and Shiites like the civil war we already saw play out from 2006-2007. I am not trying to spread the message of doom and gloom, as I will be the first to admit that the Iraqi security forces have come along way in the past three to four years. All I am saying is that we here in the America should hold off on printing another "Mission Accomplished" banner anytime soon.

Originally Posted on Demagogues and Dictators