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Strategic Implications of Intercommunal Warfare in Iraq

Authored by Dr. W. Andrew Terrill. | February 2005

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SUMMARY

Contemporary Iraqi society is comprised of Shi?ite Arabs, Sunni Arabs, ethnic Kurds, and a variety of smaller ethnic or religious minorities. In the post-Saddam era, differences among these groups will either emerge as a barrier to political cooperation and national unity, or they will instead be mitigated as part of the struggle to define a new and more inclusive system of government. Should Iraqi ethnic and sectarian differences become unmanageable, a violent struggle for political power may ensue. Democracy, if it can be established, can regulate and then alleviate the hostility leading to such events, but this function usually occurs only after the development of strong, largely unbiased political institutions and political parties, which transcend ethnic and religious differences. Ethnic and sectarian-based political parties, even if internally democratic, often feel pressure to tolerate or even embrace extremism in order to retain their base of power and undercut rivals who might claim more expansive rights for the community. Except for the fear of intercommunal conflicts, such political parties often have few political reasons to consider the rights of rival communities since they are outside of their base of power.

This monograph does not predict an ethnic or sectarian civil war in Iraq, nor does it assume that a civil war will necessarily be based on ethnic and sectarian differences if it occurs. Rather, the author assumes that the post-Saddam political situation in Iraq can have a variety of possible outcomes, only the worst of which is intercommunal warfare, either in the near or medium term future. This work holds out the strong hope that the current Iraqi awareness of the danger of civil war will be an important factor in reducing the possibility of this conclusion. Nevertheless, this report also assumes that the prospect of this sort of civil conflict is sufficiently serious as to warrant detailed consideration despite the fact that it is only one of many possibilities and hopefully not the most likely outcome for the future of Iraq.

The scope of this monograph is confined to the Middle East, which is where Iraqi ethnic and sectarian strife will almost certainly have the greatest implications for regional stability and U.S. foreign and military policy. If Iraqi violence erupts along religious/sectarian and ethnic lines, this conflict will have thunderous echoes throughout the area. Group identity, which is critical throughout much of the Middle East, will provide a compelling context for regional bystanders watching ethnic and sectarian bloodshed. Such a conflagration will undoubtedly influence regional co-religionists and ethnic kin of the embattled communities within Iraq. Many individuals and nations would feel compelled to take sides. Some, perhaps many, young men will consider traveling to Iraq to join the fight. Moreover, various nations would involve themselves in the fighting in ways up to and including the possibility of military intervention. Additionally, intercommunal harmony and tolerance in other regional states may suffer as the result of Iraqi fighting and the responses of neighboring governments to that fighting.