Is Iraq in a Civil War?

Scott Simon poses the question to Vali Nasr, a professor at the Naval Post Graduate School and author of the forthcoming book The Shia Revival and retired Maj. Gen. Robert Scales, a military historian.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

When does civil unrest become civil war? Vali Nasr teachers at the Naval Post-graduate School in Monterey, California and wrote the forthcoming book The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. He joins us from member station, KBPS in San Diego. Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor VALI NASR (Author, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam will Shape the Future): Thank you.

SIMON: And here in our studies we're joined by retired major general Robert Scales. The military historian has written histories of both the Gulf wars. Major General, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. ROBERT SCALES (Military Historian): Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And if we could begin asking both of you, and I guess Professor Nasr first, have we reached that tipping point, as we call it, these days? Is Iraq in a civil war?

Professor NASR: Well, I think it's a lot closer. There are some who have argued that we have had a low level civil war already going on in Iraq. But I think what happened at the Askariya Mosque was a major turning point from which it would be very difficult to step back. And I think Iraq is much closer to not only civil conflict, but also unraveling of a commitment to its center. A lot of the issues on which the prospects of the future were built on are now open to question.

SIMON: General Scales?

General SCALES: It's not a civil war yet in the classic sense. Perhaps a better term to use would be a growing Sunni insurrection. The Sunnis simply don't have the military power, they don't have the regional control. However, I do agree with Professor Nasr that as the situation continues to deteriorate, the country moves closer and closer to an expanded insurrection that could very well in time, if the government doesn't step in and intervene effectively, lead to something like civil war.

SIMON: Professor, when the Grand Ayatollah Sistani called for restraint this week, but added, if government security forces cannot provide the necessary protection, the believers will do it, was that sort of an invitation for the militia to set up shop?

Professor NASR: Yes. In fact, there have been some reports that he has now called for his own Shiite militia to set up. And he is under a tremendous amount of pressure to show some kind of response to this in terms of at least giving confidence to the community that it's not going to happen again. And it is said that the reason why this happened in Samarra and did not happen in Najaf or Karbala, is because in Najaf and Karbala the shrines are protected by Shiite militias, the Matti(ph) largely in Karbala and the Baller(ph) brigade in Najaf. Whereas in Samarra, on the insistence of the local population, a Sunni security force locally was in charge of the shrine.

I mean, the Shiites are angry. They want retribution. But also there is a tremendous amount of fear and apprehension. And there is pressure on people like Sistani to provide some kind of a solution which the government seems not capable to produce, and nor is the United States in a position to provide that kind of a security.

General SCALES: I do agree with the professor that these militias probably have far too much power, but ultimately the man on the street is not going to look to the militia to restore security; he is going to look to the security forces to do that and the central government to do it. So it's time for the government to begin to grab the reins of control and restore a semblance of civil order in the country.

SIMON: What's grabbing the reins of control?

General SCALES: Well, what it means is to make...

SIMON: One assumes if they could grab the reigns of control they would have done it months before now.

General SCALES: It comes down to the competency of the Army and the police force. They have the numbers now, and they have the infrastructure in place. They've been trained well, I believe, by the U.S. military. But it's time for them to start acting like a national security force. And by grabbing control what I mean is to establish a presence in all of the major cities, particularly in the four contested provinces, and begin to establish a long-term steady state semblance of civil order.

SIMON: Professor Nasr?

Professor NASR: One of the issues that the General raised is actually the point of contention now with the United States. In other words, one of the arguments the Shiites have made is that the best way to strengthen the security forces is essentially to turn the militias into security forces. Ambassador Khalilzad wants the security forces to be divorced from Shiite militias. And that creates a lot of anxiety among the Shiite because so far in their opinion the security forces have worked, particularly in the South, because they have been infiltrated by the militias.

SIMON: President Talabani said at the mosque attack, We are facing a major conspiracy that is targeting Iraqi unity. How does President Talabani in a democracy expand the Sunni base in his government without forcing a lot of Shia to say, Well, what are elections about anyway? Professor Nasr?

Professor NASR: The challenge that faces Talabani and faces the United States is that after what happened in Samarra the situation is sort of somewhat drastically changed in the sense that so far we could afford to focus on pleasing the Sunnis, on bringing them in, the 20% of the population that believes it lost in the change of regime in Iraq.

But now, we're facing a situation where the majority Shia may opt out of the process. What happened in Samarra is not just a blowing up of a mosque. It is a direct attack at the very, very foundations of Shiasm, not only in Iraq, in Iran, in Bahrain, in Saudi Arabia, in Lebanon. This is going for the jugular for the faith, and it has been a massive psychological blow to the Shia on the street, and the fact that Sistani was not able to control the mob from attacking Sunni mosques and killing Sunni clerics should be a sign of warning to us.

SIMON: Thank you both, gentlemen.

General SCALES: Thank you very much, Scott.

Professor NASR: Thank you.

SIMON: Retired major general and military historian Robert Scales and Vali Nasr, professor of Mideast History and the Politics of Islam at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, California.

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