TOPICS : Islam at the heart of Iraq’s civil war

It matters what we call things. It took too long for the Bush administration to admit that its intended liberation of Iraq had become an occupation, that US forces faced a home-grown insurgency there, and that a transition to Iraqi democracy might not result in a nation that supports US interests.

Finally, not until 2007 did the Pentagon acknowledge that Iraqi sectarian violence had crossed a threshold to become a civil war. But policymakers still haven’t come to terms with the implications of that fact. If they did, they’d see that a wisely executed withdrawal of US-led forces could well be the surest path to peace. That’s because withdrawal is likely to transform the fighting in Iraq into a defensive struggle for power in a nation-state, as opposed to an offensive battle rooted in religion.

The evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the war in Iraq is a religious civil war and that — even putting aside Al Qaeda in Iraq — Islam is at the heart of it for three reasons. First, Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites themselves see the war in these terms. They identify first and foremost as Shiites and Sunnis. Second, they use religious identity both to target opponents and define threats. Finally, they have appealed beyond the borders of Iraq for aid — fighters, arms, cash — in religious terms. Islam is not based in a specific territory; it is a transnational faith that unites its community, or umma, in the minds of men. Further, Islam does not have one leader who can dictate what is right or who is wrong. The absence of an ultimate authority figure means

that Shiites — who, unlike Sunnis, believe that religious scholars

are needed to help interpret the

will of God — often latch on to charismatic imams. My research on civil wars from 1940 to 2000 highlights three important facts about such wars, all of which apply to Iraq. First, nearly half of all ongoing civil wars (46%) involve religion in some form. Second, Islam has been involved in more than 80% of all religious civil wars. Third, religious civil wars are less likely to end in negotiated settlement. Instead, combatants tend to duke it out until one side achieves victory. What then can the US and its allies do to bring about a negotiated settlement?

Ironically, the best way to support a negotiated settlement would be to leave Iraq. The withdrawal of US forces would allow Iraq’s predominantly Arab Shiites and Sunnis to find common interest in opposing their two more classical historical adversaries: Kurds and Persians. The longer the US and Britain stay, the more they facilitate a shift away from the identity that long unified Iraq to the religious identity that is tearing it apart and facilitating its manipulation by Iran.

The idea of victory versus failure is a false dichotomy. The real choice for United States and British

policymakers is between the more costly failure that will obtain from current policy and the less costly failure that might obtain from a well-thought-out and well-executed withdrawal. — The Christian Science Monitor

Monica Duffy Toft is a professor

of Public Policy at Harvard