In El Salvador …. in the former Yugoslavia …. in Somalia ….. there were savage civil wars in the 1980s and 90s. Each of these conflicts shared some of the attributes of civil wars: ideological differences, ethnic and religious divisions, the struggle for economic control. Yet there is no one blueprint for what causes or constitutes civil war.
Mark Clodfelter, who teaches military history at the National War College, defines it this way: "It is going to be a military conflict internal to a particular country. So you are going to have organized factions fighting among themselves. One of those factions is going to be the government and the military forces associated with it. You are going to have organized resistance taking place from both sides and both sides will have publicly stated political objectives."
The American civil war of the 1860s fits that classic definition, a bloody conflict between the armies of the North and South that left more than 600,000 combatants dead. More modern conflicts are harder to define.
"There is no specific blueprint, there is no one size fits all here,” says Mr. Clodfelter. “You can have instances, say the case in Somalia in 1991 and thereafter, where there is no organized government there and yet the rest of the world would say that what you had in that situation was civil war."
The continuing sectarian violence in Iraq has revived the question of what factors lead a country into civil war. The February bombing of a holy Shi'ite mosque unleashed a wave of retaliatory killings between Iraqi Sunnis and Shias. This violence, which has come in the midst of an insurgency fighting the government and U.S. troops, has raised fears Iraq may sink into civil war.
But President Bush downplayed those fears at a recent news conference. "We all recognize that there is violence, that there is sectarian violence. But the way I look at the situation is that the Iraqis took a look and decided not to go to civil war. The army did not bust up into sectarian divisions. The army stayed united," said Mr. Bush.
Yet kidnappings and executions continue, with bodies turning up at morgues on almost a daily basis. Shi'ite militias are blamed for many of the killings of Sunnis.
At the National War College, Mark Clodfelter says the rise of militias in a country can sometimes be a sign of impending civil war.
"Certainly it could show that there is a trigger mechanism there for a conflict that is going to develop into full-scale civil war. I would say that could be a warning sign in particular for the government in power and they would want to react to that."
But quelling the violence has been hampered as negotiations to form a national unity government between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds have so far been deadlocked, a factor creating further instability.
Iraqi political scientist Louay Bahry of the Middle East Institute in Washington warns the lack of a unity government could trigger civil war. "The identity of Iraq among Iraqis is very weak now. When the institutions of the state become so weak, then people lose their own national identities and they fall back on their sectarian, and tribal, and family and clan linkages."
Iraq may yet avoid the fate of Somalia or the former Yugoslavia, but some see the specter of civil war looming.