" I think it's very important that we don't talk about civil war because of itself, it is inflammatory language," said Lt. Gen. Sir Robert Fry, the deputy commander of the Multinational Corps-Iraq under U.S. Gen. George Casey. "It is implying that the situation is worse than it is. It therefore encourages, among other things, adventurous media reporting. It could encourage a certain degree of despondency in the political constituencies of both of our countries.
"But above all, I simply don't think it is an accurate statement of the situation that we're currently involved in," he said.
In a leaked memo to London, Britain's outgoing ambassador to Iraq warned that civil war is a more likely outcome to the situation in Iraq than democracy. Amb. William Patey also predicted the break-up of Iraq along ethnic lines, according to the BBC.
And two top U.S. generals told the Senate Armed Services Committee in sworn testimony several weeks ago that civil war, while not the case now, appeared to be closer than it ever has been.
But Fry says the situation does not merit the label.
"If you have a civil war, then typically and characteristically, you have the collapse of the central institutions of government. In an absence of government, there's the possibility of chaos. You also tend to lose the instruments of security, and if the army takes part on one side or the other, then, of course, that can have equally significant implications. So I don't think we're talking about labels or military semantics here. I think we're talking about qualitative differences," Fry told Pentagon reporters Tuesday, during a video teleconference from Baghdad.
"In my judgment, we are not in a situation of civil war, and I think that we collectively have a lot of experience in what civil war looks like. I know what a civil war looks like from experience in the Balkans and parts of Africa. I also know what sectarian violence looks like from all the time that I've spent in Northern Ireland, and it seems to me it's the second of these two conditions rather than the first that we confront here in Iraq at the present time," he said.
According to Fry, the sectarian violence between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias is largely limited to the area between Baghdad and Baqubah, about 40 miles north of the capital. Fourteen of Iraq's 18 provinces are free of widespread sectarian violence, he said.
"There is a very intense sectarian conflict going on, but it is geographically defined. It is not resulting in the mass movement of population, which is characteristically what civil wars do. And it's still being conducted in an environment which has the central institutions of the state functioning. Now, that's the situation that I recognize at the present time. I do not see that as civil war, and neither do I draw glib differences between civil war and sectarian conflict. I think the differences are very substantial and still in existence in Iraq today," he said.
"What I think we have is something which is at the very best civil war in miniature, at the very best ... I think we have something which is localized, relatively difficult to deal with, but we're now beginning to take measures which are genuinely eating into the sectarian violence which has been operating up until now," he said.
Besides being a humanitarian disaster for Iraqis, civil war would be a political disaster for the White House, which has staked a somewhat adventurous foreign policy on the notion that the United States ought to be actively encouraging the development of democracies in the Middle East. That policy reverses decades of American practice in the region, which has favored stability - and looked the other way when it came to dealing with repressive regimes.
Iraq has had three successful national votes, but each has been followed by an increase in violence. Lebanon had a peaceful revolution, ousting its Syrian occupiers, but also granted power democratically to Hezbollah, the political arm of the militant wing that provoked a month-long, destructive war with Israel. And in Palestine, a popular vote gave power to Hamas, which also has a terrorist wing.
Fry also said a security crack down in Baghdad is beginning to bear fruit. As an example, there have been only 10 car bombs in the last month in Baghdad, compared to 39 on average in the previous few months.