In looking at the brewing civil war between the two groups in Iraq, it's easy to assume that the cause is ancient hatred. Nothing could be further from the truth. For the overwhelming majority of Iraqi history, Sunnis and Shi'ites have lived peacefully side by side, and numerous Iraqis are the children of mixed marriages. Instead we are witnessing in Iraq what occurs when government collapses and there is no state around capable of guaranteeing personal security.
What do you do when your family is in peril and you cannot turn to the government for protection? The answer is that you will take security wherever you can get it. You need to find some group that will be capable of keeping you safe, and that group had better be one that can count on your loyalty just as you can count on its protection. If you are a member of my ethnic, racial or religious group, then we share at least some basic bond, which may be enough to ensure our loyalty to one another. I need some assurance that you will have my back, and identity is better than nothing.
Sunnis and Shi'ites may find themselves joining militias or supporting denomination-based political parties even if they are not particularly pious and would much prefer not to. Something similar happened in the former Yugoslavia when its government collapsed with the fall of communism and nothing replaced it. Ethnic activists - call them identity entrepreneurs - will always form the core of the new militia. These radicals will emphasize symbols, like al-Askari mosque that was blown up last week in Iraq, and hope that followers will react by strengthening their commitments to the group itself.
Is it possible to break the cycle of violence that gets under way when identity groups move toward civil war? One answer is for an outside force to impose a solution. The killing did not stop in Bosnia or Kosovo until Western powers showed they were willing to bomb. But this approach is not viable in Iraq, where U.S. bombs came first and civil strife has followed. Instead the only way out of the violence is for Iraqis to realize that they have more to gain by negotiating a settlement between their groups than they do by allowing a full-blown brothers' war to break out.
What lies at the heart of the sectarian violence in Iraq is not so much religious dispute as it is a very secular competition for power and prominence in the new Iraq. Iraq is not all that different from Northern Ireland or Bosnia, where religion paraded as ethnicity and became a vehicle for communal rivalries. In the vacuum of power left by the fall of Saddam Hussein, the game of numbers has favored Shi'as, who are 60% of the population. It is for this reason that they wholeheartedly embraced democracy. Disgruntled Sunnis, on the other hand, vested their fortunes in boycott and violence, hoping that as spoilers, they would gain leverage in negotiating over the future.
Few in the West recognized the depth of either the Shi'a anger at the Saddam regime or the Sunni rage born of loss of power. There is a strong sense of Iraqi identity among both Shi'as and Sunnis, but as strong allegiance to sect and ethnicity in every election has shown, a shared notion of what Iraqi identity means and how each community sees the future of Iraq is fast disappearing. As happened in Bosnia, in Iraq mixed marriages and shared memory of coexistence will not be enough to stop internecine violence.
Shi'as embraced the political process that the U.S. set in place in 2003 in the hope that it would guarantee their security and serve their interests. There is indication now that many Shi'as are having second thoughts. Already overstretched in facing the Sunni insurgency, the U.S. can hardly afford losing the Shi'a as well. If tensions escalate to a full-blown civil war, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria may all join the war to protect their co-sectarians and to scramble for pieces of a failed Iraq.
Pulling Iraq back from the brink will be difficult. Building a strong central government and an effective security force will help. The challenge is to get them up and running before events on the ground pass a point of no return.
By any reasonable definition, there has been a civil war in progress in Iraq at least since the Coalition Provisional Authority formally handed over authority to the Iraqis in 2004. A civil war is a violent conflict within a country fought between organized groups seeking to compel a major change in government policies or to take control of the center or a region. The insurgents in Iraq target the U.S. military, but they are also fighting against the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government and killing large numbers of Iraqis. There is little reason to think that if the U.S. suddenly withdrew, the insurgents would not continue to fight to control or shape the government.
When we hear talk about incipient civil war in Iraq, the fear is of an escalation of the current insurgency into a much bigger war. Analysts may have in mind something like the U.S. Civil War, with Sunni and Shi'ite armies fighting each other across well-defined fronts. Or they may imagine a sudden spasm of massive communal conflict and ethnic cleansing along the lines of Bosnia or Rwanda. Neither scenario is all that likely, although bouts of violent ethnic cleansing are certainly possible in a few parts of the country, especially Kirkuk.
My guess would be that as the insurgency continues to create insecurity, sectarian militias will continue to grow in power and influence. They will increasingly supply local security, but in the form of protection rackets that extort as they protect. They will clash with each other over territory and control of revenue sources. Since the Sunnis remain highly disorganized, some of these local fights may initially be intra-Shi'ite. But in the absence of effective political incorporation and protection from national police and army units - which are heavily infiltrated by Shi'ite militias - Sunnis will gradually form a patchwork of militias. Neighborhood-by-neighborhood conflict and violence will increase. Think Lebanon.
If you look at the ethnic conflicts and street demonstrations during Iraq's modern history, it is remarkable how few have involved Shi'ites fighting Sunnis. During the colonial era, Iraqis were united by their opposition to the British occupation. Sunni and Shi'ite tribes cooperated in rebelling against British rule, and were only put down with a bombing campaign in 1920 that killed 9,000. In 1941 mobs targeted Iraq's small Jewish population; Jews had been a valued part of the Iraqi national fabric but were accused, unfairly, of being pro-colonial. After World War II, much of the violence in Iraq was fueled by issues of class. In 1948 slum dwellers and railway and oil workers revolted against a government treaty with Britain. In 1959, Arab nationalists assassinated Communist Party members, while mobs in Mosul and Kirkuk attacked and killed rich businessmen and landowners.
Iraqi Muslims have not all along been severely divided by religious sect. There have been many instances of strong cooperation between Sunnis and Shi'ites. Other social divides have led to mob violence in the past, but Iraqis have overcome them to re-establish national unity. It remains to be seen whether they can accomplish this feat again.