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Is Iraq in a Civil War?

There has been much talk about whether the level of sectarian violence in Iraq has risen to the point where it should be called a civil war. Why is it important to make such a distinction? VOA's Brian Padden recently talked to two political analysts who say, "Yes, Iraq is definitely in a civil war," and they say this new reality should alter American expectations and strategies in Iraq.

In the last year the sectarian violence in Iraq has claimed more than 1,000 lives in fighting between two or more factions in the country. This sustained level of violence fulfills the academic definition of a civil war, says Seth Jones, a political scientist with the . This is important to understand, he says, because civil wars can last longer and are more difficult to resolve than interstate wars.

"In civil wars there generally is no territorial retreat. Once a war is over, actually civil wars are often likely to restart again even once there is a negotiated settlement. Because you often will have those people that remain in the country. "

Michael O'Hanlon, an Iraq policy expert with The Brookings Institution says it is important to understand that Iraq is not only in a civil war, but in an ethnic based war between Sunni and Shia. He says that can help determine possible strategies to end the violence.

"Generally when you have ethnic conflict you do have in some cases the possibility of resolution based on partition or a soft partition, because people are not really operating off an ideology where they the feel an absolute need to convince everyone in their country that they are right, and make everyone live under a certain system. They primarily are seeking advantage for their own group," says O’Hanlon.

Successful international intervention in other civil wars around the world, these analysts say, offer lessons the U.S. may apply to the situation in Iraq. Jones says, in 1999 Australia and the U.S. played pivotal roles in ending the violence in East Timor. He says the key was not military intervention but assisting the government in providing food and basic services, like electricity, to shore up popular support.

"So the lesson here is very stark,” says Jones. “Outside assistance can be provided to governments to fight insurgents in a civil war but if it does not have significant popular support and legitimacy in the end it will likely fail."

O'Hanlon says in the 1990s NATO's military intervention forced Serbia to a negotiated settlement in Bosnia. "In Bosnia, NATO basically said to Serbs, ‘We know you want 75 percent of Bosnia but you can't have it. And if you try to keep that much we will keep attacking you, and we have now proven our willingness to do so.’ And under those circumstances the Serbs settled for less than they really wanted and you got some kind of resolution."

Some officials in the U.S. argue that the American military should not be in the middle of fighting between factions in Iraq, be it sectarian violence or a civil war. But O'Hanlon says the U.S. must stay involved to prevent a catastrophic loss of life and regional instability.