Civil war in Iraq

Civil war in Iraq
Civil war/sectarian violence in Iraq
Part of Iraq War and Iraqi insurgency
Date ~February 2006- ~May 2008[3][4]
Location Iraq (mostly central, including Baghdad)
Result Ongoing but mainly halted

Islamic State of Iraq
 al-Qaeda al-Qaeda in Iraq
Ba'ath Party Loyalist
Ansar al-Sunna
Islamic Army of Iraq
Sunni tribes
Other Sunni insurgents and militia

Mahdi Army (and Special Groups)
Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq
Kata'ib Hezbollah
Promised Day Brigades
Badr Brigades
Rogue elements among the Iraqi security forces
Soldiers of Heaven
Shia tribes
Other militias

Iraq Iraqi security forces
United States United States
United Kingdom United Kingdom (until May, 2009)[1]
MultinationalForce-IraqDUI.svg Other coalition forces
Private Security Contractors
Iraqi Kurdistan Peshmerga
Sons of Iraq[2]

Commanders and leaders
Abu Omar al-Baghdadi 

 al-Qaeda Abu Musab al-Zarqawi 
 al-Qaeda Abu Ayyub al-Masri 
 al-Qaeda Abu Suleiman
Iraq Saddam Hussein (POW)
Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri
Abu Abdullah al-Shafi (POW)
Fakri Hadi Gari (POW)
Ishmael Jubouri

Muqtada al-Sadr

Abu Deraa
Qais al-Khazali (POW)
Akram al-Kabi
Arkan Hasnawi 
Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim 
Abdul Aziz al-Hakim
Hadi al-Amiri
Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani
Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim 
Ahmed Hassani al-Yemeni 

IraqIraqi Kurdistan Jalal Talabani

Iraq Ibrahim al-Jaafari
Iraq Nouri al-Maliki
United States Tommy Franks
United States David Petraeus
Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani
Abdul Sattar Abu Risha 
Ahmad Abu Risha

Sunni Insurgents: 70,000 (2003-2007)[9]
Foreign Mujahedeen: 1,300[10]
Mahdi Army: 60,000(2003-2008)[11]
Badr Organisation: 20,000[12]
Soldiers of Heaven: 1,000[13]
Special Grous:
Several Thousand
~49,700 current
Iraqi Security Forces
618,000 (805,269 Army and 348,000 Police)[16]
Awakening Council militias
Casualties and losses
~100,000 Sunnis killed by Shi'a militia and security forces[18] ~150,000 Civilians killed by Sunni insurgents[19] 4,718 Coalition forces killed[20]
9,481 Iraqi Security Forces killed[21]
N.B.: The factional situation is complex; Sunni- and Shi'ite-linked militias have also fought amongst each other, and have colluded with government forces. Some casualties also linked to the crime activities and not due to the war. See the full text for details.

Following the U.S.-launched 2003 invasion of Iraq, the situation deteriorated, and by 2007, the conflict between Iraqi Sunni and Shi'a factions was described by the National Intelligence Estimate as having elements of a civil war.[22] In a January 10, 2007 address to the American people, President George W. Bush stated that "80% of Iraq's sectarian violence occurs within 30 miles (48 km) of the capital. This violence is splitting Baghdad into sectarian enclaves, and shaking the confidence of all Iraqis."[23] Two polls of Americans conducted in 2006 found that between 65% to 85% believed Iraq was in a civil war;[24][25] however, a similar poll of Iraqis conducted in 2007 found that 61% did not believe that they were in a civil war.[26]

In October 2006, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Iraqi government estimated that more than 365,000 Iraqis had been displaced since the 2006 bombing of the al-Askari Mosque, bringing the total number of Iraqi refugees to more than 1.6 million.[27] By 2008, the UNHCR raised the estimate of refugees to a total of about 4.7 million (~16% of the population). The number of refugees estimated abroad was 2 million (a number close to CIA projections[28]) and the number of internally displaced people was 2.7 million.[29] In 2007, Iraq's anti-corruption board reported that 35% of Iraqi children, or about five million children, were orphans.[30] The Red Cross has also stated that Iraq's humanitarian situation remains among the most critical in the world, with millions of Iraqis forced to rely on insufficient and poor-quality water sources.[31]

According to the Failed States Index, produced by Foreign Policy magazine and the Fund for Peace, Iraq was one of the world's top 5 unstable states from 2005 to 2008.[32] A poll of top U.S. foreign policy experts conducted in 2007 showed that over the next 10 years, just 3% of experts believed the U.S. would be able to rebuild Iraq into a "beacon of democracy" and 58% of experts believed that Sunni-Shiite tensions would dramatically increase in the Middle East.[33][34]

In June 2008, the U.S. Department of Defense reported that "the security, political and economic trends in Iraq continue to be positive; however, they remain fragile, reversible and uneven."[35] In July 2008, the audit arm of the U.S. Congress recommended that the U.S. Government should "develop an updated strategy for Iraq that defines U.S. goals and objectives after July 2008 and addresses the long-term goal of achieving an Iraq that can govern, defend, and sustain itself".[36] Steven Simon, a Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in May 2008 that "the recent short-term gains" had "come at the expense of the long-term goal of a stable, unitary Iraq."[37]

After Iraqi security forces took the lead in security operations on June 30, 2009, Iraq experienced a "dramatic reduction in war-related violence of all types ..., with civilian and military deaths down by 80 to 90 percent compared with the same period in 2008." [38]

As of late 2010 violence remains at far lower levels than during the worst of the bloodshed in 2006-2007. However hundreds are still killed every month by sectarian groups and insurgents attempting to exploit the perceived weakness of the Iraqi Government. There is much debate on whether or not the "Civil War" has ended as well as heated controversy on how to label the violence that is still a daily feature of life in Iraq.


Ethno-sectarian composition

The Sunni insurgency has used sectarian violence to capitalize on Sunni fears of the Shi'a majority and the Shi'a armed militias have shown a zeal for vigilante justice. However, there are other sectarian divisions of the population that lay in nearly a dozen distinct groups. These groups are subdivided into countless smaller factions.

The sectarian divisions can be divided into several main ideological or ethnic strands:

Ethnic groups:

  • Shias (Arabic speaking)  : -60%: By themselves a majority of the population, but for centuries dominated by the Sunni Arab minority. The 2003 invasion of Iraq and establishment of democracy meant an end to the Sunni Arab domination, and seemingly the beginning of the Shia Arab domination of the state.

Sunnis (Arabic speaking) : - 15% : Dominated Iraqi politics and military since 1638 and the Treaty of Zohab that confirmed Ottoman Sunni domination of Iraq. The Coalition invasion of 2003 and the establishment of democracy, ended this centuries long dominance of power by the minority Sunni Arabs.

  • Kurdish - 21% : De facto independent administration (mostly Sunnis, small Shi'ite, Yazidi, and other elements).
  • Assyrian - 2% : This group has a minor role in the current situation (mostly Christians).
  • Turkoman - 2% : This group has a minor role in the current situation (majority Sunni with large Shi'a minority), although Turkey is concerned about their overall treatment in Iraq.


  • Muslim - 98% : This is the primary religion in Iraq and serves as one of the primary sectarian distinctions.
    • Sunni - 32% : Majority Arabs with Kurds and Turkomans by 3 to 1.
    • Shi'ite - 65% : Mainly Arabs with a very small minority of Kurds and Turkomans.
  • Christian, Mandaeans and Yazidi ~ 2% : These groups have a minor role in the current situation.

The Arab-Sunni faction and the Arab-Shi'ite are the main two participants in the violence, but conflicts within a single group have occurred. Iran, it has been conjectured, would assist the Shiites. Sunni-Shiite violence in Iraq, with Iran helping the Shi'ite and Arab nations helping the Sunni, is a possibility.[39][verification needed] A senior American official has said that during a meeting between Vice President Dick Cheney and Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in November 2006, the king said that if U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, the Saudis would be forced to support the Sunni minority.[40]

The Kurds are caught between the two religious groups, but as they are an ethnicity opposed to religious movement, they are often at odds with the Sunni Arabs that were settled in Iraqi Kurdistan by Saddam's Arabization policy. Kurds also sympathise with Shi'ites as Saddam's Sunni regime persecuted both communities.[41] Blurring this cohesion, though, are division of social, economic, political and geographic identities.

Groups known and alleged to take part in the sectarian violence

A multitude of groups form the Iraqi Insurgency which arose in a piecemeal fashion as a reaction to local events and notably the realisation of the U.S. military’s inability to control Iraq.[42] Since 2005 the insurgent forces have largely merged around several main factions, including the Islamic Army in Iraq and Ansar al-Sunna.[43] Religious justification has been used to support the political actions of these groups as well as a marked adherence to Salafism which brands those against the jihad as non believers. This approach has played a role in the rise of sectarian violence.[44] The U.S. military also believe that between 5-10% of insurgent forces are non-Iraqi Arabs.[42]

Independent Shi'ite militias have identified themselves around sectarian ideology and possess various levels of influence and power. There is a strand of militia who were founded in exile and returned to Iraq only after the toppling of Saddam Hussein such as the Badr Organization. There are also militias created since the state collapse, the largest and most uniform of which is the Mahdi Army established by Moqtada al-Sadr and believed to have around 50,000 fighters.[42] Although their participation in the religious terrorism is not universal, the individual members of these militias are known to take part in the attacks on the Sunni and other non-Shia civilians.

Conflict and tactics

Non-military targets

Some analysts suspect that the aim of these attacks is to sow chaos and sectarian discord. The attacks on non-military and civilian targets began in earnest in August 2003. Iraqi casualties have increased since then.[45][46]

Bomb and mortar attacks

The bomb attacks aimed at civilians usually target crowded places such as marketplaces and mosques in the Shi'ite cities and districts.[47][48] The bombings, which are sometimes co-ordinated, often inflict extreme casualties.

For example, the 23 November 2006 Sadr City bombings killed at least 215 people and injured hundreds more in the Sadr City district of Baghdad, sparking reprisal attacks, or the 3 February 2007 Baghdad market bombing which killed at least 135 and injured more than 300, while the co-ordinated 2 March 2004 Iraq Ashura bombings (including car bombs, suicide bombers and mortar, grenade and rocket attacks) killed at least 178 people and injured at least 500.

Suicide bombings

Since August 2003, suicide car bombs have been increasingly used as weapons by Sunni militants, primarily al-Qaeda extremists. The car bombs, known in the military as vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (IEDs), have emerged as one of their most effective weapons, directed not only against civilian targets but also against the Iraqi police stations and recruiting centers.

These vehicle IEDs are often driven by the extremists from the foreign Muslim countries with a history of militancy, such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, and Pakistan.[citation needed]

Death squads

Death squad-style killings in Iraq have taken place in a variety of ways. Kidnapping, followed by often extreme torture (such as drilling holes in peoples feet with drills [2]) and execution-style killings, sometimes public (in some cases, beheadings), have emerged as another tactic. In some cases, tapes of the execution are distributed for propaganda purposes. The bodies are usually dumped on a roadside or in other places, several at a time. There were also several relatively large-scale massacres, like the Hay al Jihad massacre in which some 40 Sunnis were killed in a response to the car bombing which killed a dozen of Shi'ites.

The death squads are often disgruntled Shi'ites, including members of the security forces, who kill Sunnis to avenge the consequences of the insurgency against the Shi'ite-dominated government. [3]

Attacks and occupations on places of worship

On February 22, 2006, the highly provocative explosion took place at the al-Askari Mosque in the Iraqi city of Samarra, one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam, believed to have been caused by a bomb planted by al-Qaeda in Iraq. Although no injuries occurred in the blast, the mosque was severely damaged and the bombing resulted in violence over the following days. Over 100 dead bodies with bullet holes were found on the next day, and at least 165 people are thought to have been killed. In the aftermath of this attack the U.S. military calculated that the average homicide rate in Baghdad tripled from 11 to 33 deaths per day.[42]

Dozens of Iraqi mosques were since attacked or taken-over by the sectarian forces. For example, a Sunni ( Al Qaeda) mosque was burnt in the southern Iraqi town of Haswa on March 25, 2007, in the revenge for the destruction of a Shia mosque in the town the previous day.[49] In several cases, Christian churches were also attacked by the extremists. Later, another al-Askari bombing took place in June 2007.

Iraq's Christian minority also has become a target by Al Qaeda Sunnis because of conflicting theological ideas.[50][51]

Sectarian desertions

Some Iraqi service members have deserted the military or the police and others have refused to serve in hostile areas.[52] For example, some members of one sect have refused to serve in neighborhoods dominated by other sects.[52] The ethnic Kurdish soldiers from northern Iraq, who are mostly Sunnis but not Arabs, were also reported to be deserting the army to avoid the civil strife in Baghdad, a conflict they consider someone else's problem.[53]


For more information on events in a specific year, see the associated timeline page.

Civilian deaths attributable to insurgent or military action in Iraq, and also to increased criminal violence. For the period between January 2006 and February 2008 as rendered by the Congressional Research Service for the Department of Defense. Many of these type of civilian deaths are not reported, and this image only reports from 2006 on. Other methods of estimating civilian deaths come up with much higher numbers. See also: Casualties of the conflict in Iraq since 2003.

Potential effects of the sectarian attacks

An article in The Washington Post, published on August 20, 2006,[54] reported that a full-blown Iraq civil war might result in the death of hundreds of thousands of people and turn millions of people into refugees. The ethnic unrest could also spill over to the rest of the region, with "copycat secession attempts" in neighbouring countries, such as Kuwait, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, as these countries have similar ethnic diversity. Citing the history of Taliban and Rwandan Patriotic Front as examples, the report warned that refugee camps often become a sanctuary and recruiting ground for militias, thus spreading the conflict to a wider area. Civil war could lead to increased radicalism and terrorism: Hezbollah and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were formed as a result of civil wars. Based on lessons learned from the Lebanese and Bosnian civil wars, the report predicted that if an all-out civil war were to break out in Iraq, the U.S.-led coalition would require 450,000 troops to quash it.

An article in The International Herald Tribune, published on November 26, 2006,[55] paraphrased a report from a group of American professors at Stanford University that the insurgency in Iraq amounted to the classic definition of a civil war.

Growth in refugee flight

By 2008, the UNHCR raised the estimate of refugees to a total of about 4.7 million, with 2 million displaced internally and 2.7 million displaced externally.[29] In April 2006 the Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimated that "nearly 70,000 displaced Iraqis, especially from the capital, are living in deteriorating conditions,” due to ongoing sectarian violence.[56] Roughly 40% of Iraq's middle class is believed to have fled, the U.N. said. Most are fleeing systematic persecution and have no desire to return.[57] Refugees are mired in poverty as they are generally barred from working in their host countries.[58][59] A May 25, 2007 article notes that in the past seven months only 69 people from Iraq have been granted refugee status in the United States.[60]

Use of "civil war" label

The use of the term "civil war" has been controversial, with a number of commentators preferring the term "civil conflict". A poll of over 5,000 Iraqi nationals found that 27% of polled Iraqi residents agreed that Iraq was in a civil war, while 61% thought Iraq was not.[26] Two similar polls of Americans conducted in 2006 found that between 65% to 85% believed Iraq was in a civil war.[24][25]

In the United States, the term has been politicized. Deputy leader of the United States Senate, Dick Durbin, referred to "this civil war in Iraq"[61] in a criticism of George W. Bush's January 10, 2007, President's Address to the Nation.[62]

An unclassified summary of the 90-page January 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, titled Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead, states the following regarding the use of the term "civil war":

The Intelligence Community judges that the term “civil war” does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict in Iraq, which includes extensive Shia-on-Shia violence, al-Qa’ida and Sunni insurgent attacks on Coalition forces, and widespread criminally motivated violence. Nonetheless, the term “civil war” accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict, including the hardening of ethno-sectarian identities, a sea change in the character of the violence, ethno-sectarian mobilization, and population displacements.[63]

Retired United States Army General Barry McCaffrey issued a report on March 26, 2007, after a trip and analysis of the situation in Iraq. The report labeled the current situation a "low-grade civil war."[64] In page 3 of the report, he writes that:

"Iraq is ripped by a low-grade civil war which has worsened to catastrophic levels with as many as 3000 citizens murdered per month. The population is in despair. Life in many of the urban areas is now desperate. A handful of foreign fighter (500+)--and a couple thousand Al Qaeda operatives incite open factional struggle through suicide bombings which target Shia holy places and innocent civilians...The police force is feared as a Shia militia in uniform which is responsible for thousands of extra-judicial killings."

See also






  1. ^
  2. ^ Iraq Government Vows to Disband Sunnis
  3. ^ Reuters: April Iraq's deadliest month since last August
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^ Iraq Body Count Retrieved 18 September 2007.
  7. ^ 2006 Study of Iraq Mortality
  8. ^ "Opinion Research Business (ORB) poll: More than 1,000,000 Iraqis murdered". September 2007. Opinion Research Business.
  9. ^ The Brookings Institution Iraq Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-Saddam Iraq 1 October 2007
  10. ^ Pincus, Walter (November 17, 2006). "Violence in Iraq Called Increasingly Complex". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 30, 2010. 
  11. ^ Ricks, Thomas E.. "Intensified Combat on Streets Likely". The Washington Post. Retrieved April 30, 2010. 
  12. ^ Page 2
  13. ^ "Using that self aggrandizing, self appointed title, al Hassan built up a force of a thousand men" The Hidden Imam's Dream - Sky News, January 30, 2007
  14. ^ "Private contractors outnumber U.S. troops in Iraq". By T. Christian Miller. Los Angeles Times. July 4, 2007.
  15. ^ "Contractor deaths add up in Iraq". By Michelle Roberts. Deseret Morning News. Feb. 24, 2007.
  16. ^ Collins, C. (August 19, 2007) "U.S. says Iranians train Iraqi insurgents," McClatchy Newspapers
  17. ^ A Dark Side to Iraq 'Awakening' Groups
  18. ^ Shi'as Peril
  19. ^ Ten Fallacies about the Violence in Iraq
  20. ^
  21. ^
  22. ^ "Elements of 'civil war' in Iraq". BBC News. 2007-02-02. Retrieved January 2, 2010. "A US intelligence assessment on Iraq says "civil war" accurately describes certain aspects of the conflict, including intense sectarian violence." 
  23. ^ "President's Address to the Nation". The White House. 2007-01-10. 
  24. ^ a b Poll: Nearly two-thirds of Americans say Iraq in civil war
  25. ^ a b 12/06 CBS: 85% of Americans now characterize the situation in Iraq as a Civil War
  26. ^ a b Colvin, Marie (2007-03-18). "Iraqis: life is getting better". London: The Times. Retrieved April 30, 2010. []
  27. ^ Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
  28. ^ "CIA World Factbook: Iraq"
  29. ^ a b UNHCR - Iraq: Latest return survey shows few intending to go home soon. Published April 29, 2008. Retrieved May 20, 2008.
  30. ^ 5 million Iraqi orphans, anti-corruption board reveals English translation of Aswat Al Iraq newspaper December 15, 2007
  31. ^ Iraq: No let-up in the humanitarian crisis
  32. ^
  33. ^ U.S. foreign policy experts oppose surge
  34. ^ Foreign Policy: Terrorism Survey III (Final Results)
  35. ^ " US Department of Defense (June 2008): Measuring Security and Stability in Iraq
  36. ^ US Government Accountability Office (June 2008): Securing, Stabilizing, and Rebuilding Iraq
  37. ^ Council on Foreign Relations: The Price of the Surge
  38. ^ New York Times 10-12-2009
  39. ^ Buchanan, Patrick, "Is America’s war in Iraq winding up?". August 4, 2005
  40. ^ CNN "Official: Saudis to back Sunnis if U.S. leaves Iraq?".December 12. 2006
  41. ^ "US exit may lead to Iraqi civil war". November 19, 2003
  42. ^ a b c d Toby Dodge (2007). ‘The Causes of US Failure in Iraq’. Survival. Vol. 49, No. 1
  43. ^ International Crisis Group. ‘In Their Own Words: Reading the Iraqi Insurgency’. Middle East Report No. 50, 15th February 2006
  44. ^ Roel Meijer, ‘The Sunni Resistance and the Political Process’ in Markus Bouillion, David Malone and Ben Rowsell (eds). Preventing Another Generation of Conflict. USA: Lynne Rienner Publishers
  45. ^ John Hopkins School of Puclic Health: Iraqi Civilian Deaths Increase Dramatically After Invasion
  46. ^ Wall Street Journal: The Truth About Iraq's Casualty Count
  47. ^ AFP: Bomb attack kills more than 40 near Iraq Shiite shrine
  48. ^ CNN: Pair of bombs kills 53 in Baghdad, officials say
  49. ^ Al Jazeera English - News - Iraq Mosque Burnt In Revenge Attack
  50. ^ BBC Analysis: Iraq's Christians under attack
  51. ^ [1]
  52. ^ a b Former CIA Officer Says Iraq Can Be Stabilized By Trained Security Forces PBS
  53. ^ Kurdish Iraqi Soldiers Are Deserting to Avoid the Conflict in Baghdad
  54. ^ Daniel L. Byman, and Kenneth M. Pollack (2006-08-20). "A Domino Theory for the New Mideast: What Happens When Iraq Runneth Over". The Washington Post. 
  55. ^ Edward Wong (2006-11-26). "Scholars agree Iraq meets definition of 'civil war'". The International Herald Tribune. 
  56. ^ IRAQ: Sectarian violence continues to spur displacement
  57. ^ 40% of middle class believed to have fled crumbling nation
  58. ^ Doors closing on fleeing Iraqis
  59. ^ Displaced Iraqis running out of cash, and prices are rising
  60. ^ Ann McFeatters: Iraq refugees find no refuge in America. Seattle Post-Intelligencer May 25, 2007
  61. ^ Susan Milligan, "Democrats say they will force lawmakers to vote on increase". July 11, 2006
  62. ^ President's Address to the Nation
  63. ^ "Prospects for Iraq's Stability: A Challenging Road Ahead (PDF)" (PDF). National Intelligence Estimate. January 2007. 
  64. ^

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