2006 February 27 Monday
1300 Dead In Baghdad From Sectarian Violence

What's your definition of civil war? The Samarra mosque bombing has set off a particularly intense period of sectarian killings in Iraq.

BAGHDAD, Feb. 27 -- Grisly attacks and other sectarian violence unleashed by last week's bombing of a Shiite shrine have killed more than 1,300 Iraqis, making the past few days the deadliest of the war outside major U.S. offensives, according to Baghdad's main morgue. The toll was more than three times higher than the figure previously reported by the U.S. military and the news media.

Do the Shia militiamen carrying out the killings know who among the Sunnis are in the insurgency? How selective are the killings? Or are the Shias killing family members of Sunni insurgents?

Some people claim that Iraq is not yet in a civil war. Well, I'm confident of the ability of the Sunni insurgents/terrorists/patriots/holy warriors/bad guys/good guys to blow up some more Shia holy sites and kill enough Shias that the Shias will amp up their response and kick up the death rate for Sunnis to even higher levels than we've seen so far. But when does the civil war begin? Is 2000 dead in a week a civil war? Or 3000? Not enough? How about 5000? Or does the death rate need to exceed some threshold level for a number of weeks before we classify the fighting Iraq as a civil war?

The sectarian violence (mostly Shias killing Sunnis) was set off by the Feb. 22, 2006 destruction of the Shia Golden Mosque in Samarra, also known as the Al-Askariya Mosque. Check out the before and after pictures. The mosque was fairly fancy.

The golden dome of the sanctuary was completed in 1905 and is covered by 72,000 golden pieces. It measured roughly 20 metres wide with a circumference of 68 metres, making it one of the biggest domes in the Islamic world. Each of the mosques two golden minarets is 36 m high, according to the Encyclopedia of the Orient and Atlas Tours.

The power of the clerics is strengthened by this crisis since the clerics clearly are the only leaders who can restrain the Iraqi population. The Shias are hopping mad and Ayatollah Sistani wants more Shia militias.

Shiite militias remain heavily armed and emotional, and on Sunday continued to move into some Sunni neighborhoods in the capital. Clerics are emerging as the only voices that can quell the violence, even as they've come under pressure from their followers to demand revenge. Even Ayatollah Sistani has advocated the founding of additional sectarian militias, drawn from southern tribes, to protect Shiite interests.

"It may well be that things will die down now,'' says Joost Hilterman, who runs the International Crisis Group's (ICG) Middle East Project in Amman, Jordan. "But the structural dynamic still points toward civil war, and the institutions that could restrain it have become severely weakened."

Those Sunnis killed by Shia retaliations have families who will of course want revenge. But the Sunnis have already killed lots of Shias whose families also want revenge.

Some of the deaths on Saturday Feburary 26, 2006 give a sense of what is going on in Iraq right now.

Today, at least 15 people were killed and 45 injured in a mortar attack in Dora, the police and hospital officials told Reuters. Dora is a mixed neighborhood in southern Baghdad that has been gripped by sectarian assassinations for more than a year.

In the southern city of Basra, two people were injured when a homemade bomb exploded in the ablutions area of a Shiite mosque, according to a medic, and at least five people were injured when a car bomb exploded in Hilla, south of Baghdad, an Interior Ministry spokesman said.

If the attacks on Shiite mosques continue enough Shiites will ignore calls from top clerics for restraint that the violence will escalate.

The attack on the Samarra mosque is seen by some as part of a strategy to get people to shift loyalties toward lower level groups.

American military leaders saw the handiwork of Abu Musab Zarqawi, the violent Sunni extremist. "Zarqawi's target is to strip away this notion of Iraqi nationalism," Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, deputy strategy director for U.S. Central Command, told me on the day of the bombing. "If he can wipe away this notion, as was done in Yugoslavia, then people would revert to the next tier: 'I am a Sunni, a Shia, or a Kurd.'"

The notion of Iraqi nationalism was always very weak anyway. The Sunni notion of Iraqi nationalism is that Sunnis rule Shias. The Shia notion is that Shias rule Sunnis. The Arabs find the concept of people meeting as equals as entirely foreign to their experience and their conceptual framework. If the rest of the world really did think like Westerners then the rest of the world would already be much more like Westerners. Current US policies toward the Middle East will eventually be seen by the politically correct mainstream as foolish due to basic facts about human nature.

Time to forget about democracy happy talk. The situation is so dire that the US is making heavy threats to all factions to keep them from moving to all out civil war.

Khalilzad’s strongest card is that the Americans have the money and the military boots on the ground. “Behind closed doors, he can say that if there is a civil war, because of our military power we can decide who comes out on top — and leave it open as to who might emerge the victor,” Krepinevich said.

It is, he added, a warning to all sides that “we can make life really miserable for you”.

Officially, talk of civil war is frowned upon in Washington. “We don’t believe we’re there,” a senior American defence official said. “We’re watching closely to see if the Iraqi forces are going to disintegrate under pressure. It’s so far so good. Iraqi leaders have shown their ability to stay together in the face of strong provocation.”

I figure the frowns in Washington D.C. are going to get a lot bigger before this thing is over.

Recall how back in September 2005 the US military downgraded the number of Iraqi batallions that they thought could fight independently.

The number of Iraqi army battalions that can fight insurgents without U.S. and coalition help has dropped from three to one, top U.S. generals told Congress yesterday, adding that the security situation in Iraq is too uncertain to predict large-scale American troop withdrawals anytime soon.

Those downgraded batallions stayed downgraded while the last top rated batallion has now also been downgraded.

The only Iraqi battalion capable of fighting without U.S. support has been downgraded to a level requiring them to fight with American troops backing them up, the Pentagon said Friday.


According to the congressionally mandated Iraq security report released Friday, there are 53 Iraqi battalions at level two status, up from 36 in October. There are 45 battalions at level three, according to the report.

It is interesting to note that some news articles have reported Shia militia moving around in Baghdad without opposition from Iraqi security forces. Are the government's forces so overweighted by Shias that the Shia militias have nothing to worry about from government troops?

A civil war could pull in populations and governments from neighboring countries and cause fighting between Shias and Sunnis in other Arab countries.

If Iraq were to sink deeper into that kind of conflict, Baghdad and other cities could become caldrons of ethnic cleansing, bringing revenge violence from one region to another. Shiite populations in Lebanon, Kuwait and especially Saudi Arabia, where Shiites happen to live in the oil-rich eastern sector, could easily revolt. Such a regional conflict could take years to exhaust itself, and could force the redrawing of boundaries that themselves are less than 100 years old.

Picture the Saudi Shiites rising up in the oil field region of Saudi Arabia where they are a majority and uniting with Shias in Iraq. The only reason I can't see that happen is that Arabs do not unite well.

The Shia retaliations might end up having salutary effects. The Sunnis have been reminded that they would suffer horribly and many of them would be killed in a no holds barred civil war. But can the Sunnis who fear civil war restrain the sorts of people who blow up Shia mosques? Are there powerful Sunnis with militias that have both the incentive and the knowledge to hunt down Zarqawi and his followers?

I see what is going on in Iraq as a signalling game between the factions. The Sunnis have been signalling they will not accept a subordinate position to the Shias. The Shias are now signalling that the Sunnis have gone too far and that the Shias will inflict lots of harm on Sunnis if the Sunnis do not back down. But I still do not see how this violent signalling back and forth can lead them to a point where they agree on terms for the political system which the major factions will all find acceptable.

I first argued for partition of Iraq in November 2003 and that still seems like the best solution to me. Also see my later partition posts here and here and here. Back in August 2005 Lieutenant General William E. Odom, U.S. Army (Ret.) and former director of the National Security Agency under Ronald Reagan argued that all the reasons for staying in Iraq have it exactly backward. More recently Odom has argued that "staying the course" amounts to throwing away resources better used elsewhere.

Update:The signs are the crisis is easing.

"Localized difficulties also persist, but I think, at the strategic level, this crisis -- a mosque attack leading to civil war -- is over," Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said in a telephone interview. "It was a serious crisis. I believe that Iraq came to the brink and came back."

But another big mosque attack or a big killing elsewhere could reintensify the conflict.

Both the Kurds and the Sunnis decided they did not want full out civil war.

Ironically, the Kurds stood to gain the most from a civil conflict. They have long wanted an independent state, and revolted against Saddam Hussein in 1991 only to be brutally repressed. But Talabani was deeply troubled by the Samarra crisis, said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat who was in contact with Talabani throughout the crisis.


Saleh al-Mutlak, a Sunni leader who attended the talks Saturday, put it more bluntly: "I think this is a lesson for the Sunnis," he said. "Next time they will try to buy weapons to face these kinds of developments."

The Kurds would prefer to secede from Iraq peacefully. The Sunnis have just realized they do not have enough weapons and military force to take on the Shias - yet. So I figure the Kurds and Sunnis have not abandoned their goals. But they have both had moments of clarity in terms of what they need to make happen to achieve their goals.

How will the Sunnis raise the funds to arm for civil war? Where will the money come from? They need to get access to oil money. Or steal weapons from the Iraqi military by getting more Sunnis to join up for a while. What steps will the Kurds take to make themselves better able to secede with a minimum of violence? I figure they will continue to scare Sunnis into leaving territory that Kurds control. They want to disentangle from the Arabs at a demographic level.

Update: A Knight-Ridder report throws doubt on the Washington Post claim of 1300 people killed in Baghdad.

After last Wednesday's mosque bombing, about 250 bodies with signs of violent deaths - out of the total of 379 - were taken to Baghdad's main morgue, the repository for bodies from the city and surrounding villages, according to an examination of documents there, including pictures of the corpses, and interviews with medical personnel.

A review of the morgue's logbook confirmed that most of the 250 had died of bullet wounds. A top morgue official, who asked that his name not be used for security reasons, verified those numbers.

Anyone have insight into where the truth might lie here?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 February 27 07:57 PM  Mideast Iraq Ethnic Cleansing

seelow heights said at February 27, 2006 11:36 PM:

I thought it was clear that the Turks would not tolerate an independent Kurdish state because it would obviously create a pole of attraction for their own historically oppressed Kurdish population.

Daveg said at February 28, 2006 7:32 AM:

During the same week that 1300 Iraqi's were killed, evidence has been introduced tiying Saddam to the murder of 130 people some 15 years ago.

We are outpacing the trial by a factor of 10x.

Things that make you go hmmm...

gcochran said at February 28, 2006 5:13 PM:

The population of the United States during the War of the Rebellion was about the same as Iraq's today. Total deaths, over about four years, may have reached 700,000: that's about three thousand a week.

Greg said at February 28, 2006 5:48 PM:

Here's a speech given by Congressman Ron Paul of Texas which ties the Iraq war into the support of the dollar. The main point is that the dollar is supported by military force. A fairly long piece, but worth the read.

gcochran said at February 28, 2006 8:19 PM:

For another take on what level of killings could be called civil war, look at the Spanish Civil War (the one in the nineteen thirties) Population was similar to that of Iraq today, about a million were killed. Mostly civilians, though, unlike our Civil War.

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2006 8:39 PM:


Lebanon strikes me as a better model for Iraq. Wikipedia puts the 1975-1990 Lebanon Civil War death toll at 100,000. Currently the CIA puts the population of Lebanon at 3.8 million. But the average population during the Lebanese civil war was probably considerably lower. Iraq is probably about 5 times bigger in population than Lebanon was then. So Iraq would need to lose about half a million to equal what Lebanon lost.

Though Lebanon's civil war was rather long.

My guess is the Arabs are too lame as fighters to kill all that many of each other.

Randall Parker said at February 28, 2006 9:25 PM:

The Lebanese lost about 130 per week in their civil war. Well, Baghdad alone just lost 10 times that many in less than a week.

One site puts Iraq's 2005 losses at 2916 police/military and 6938 civilians. That's about 190 a week and so it is low proportionately to the Lebanese civil war. Though the death rate in Iraq is low in some areas and high in others.

neocon said at March 1, 2006 5:41 PM:

From the AP - The Washington Post cited figures from the Baghdad central morgue in its report on deaths in the violence since a Shiite shrine was destroyed. But a morgue official says as of Sunday night it had only received 249 bodies tied to the violence.

Looks like the Iraqi Police Force have the "Civil War" under control.

FriendlyFire said at March 4, 2006 2:27 AM:

[i]The population of the United States during the War of the Rebellion was about the same as Iraq's today. Total deaths, over about four years, may have reached 700,000: that's about three thousand a week.[/i]

Back in July 1776, there were about 2.5 million people living in the colonies.

The total loss of life resulting from the American Revolutionary War is unknown. As was typical in the wars of the era, disease claimed more lives than battle. The war took place in the context of a massive smallpox epidemic in North America that probably killed more than 130,000 people


gcochran said at March 4, 2006 10:52 AM:

You could look up the phrase "war of the rebellion" in google. It's actually pretty easy. But of course if you knew jack about war or the history of the United States, you would already know what it means.

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