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(Via Atrios/Josh Marshall, we learn that "NBC has made an editorial decision to start calling the situation in Iraq a 'civil war'."  Steve Gilliard sent me an old post of his yesterday that he'd written three years ago, about how Iraq could devolve into civil war.  It would be almost funny if it weren't so tragic — how come none of the Great Men of Washington could figure this out?  Reprinted in its entirety with permission — JH)

How Iraq could devolve into Civil War

Iraq is clearly suffering a period of disorder, the question is will it shift into civil war?

I am not predicting a civil war. What I am saying is that there will be signs of a country slipping into civil war which should be clear. I don't know what will happen. Maybe the exiles and the US can build peace. I certainly hope so, because the alternative could be a catastrophe for both Americans and Iraqis.

* A lack of respect for civil institutions

The looting of hospitals is a bad sign. Taking things from a hospital, which is designed to help people, is not only mere greed. It is the suggestion that there is no respect for civil authority. Most people will loot a store or a government office, but a hospital? That's more than just greed. It means the people doing the robbing are either criminals looking to add to their loot, crazed teenagers, or people looking to create dependency on another source of power. Which is scary beyond belief.

The US military's easy going attitude towards the looting was amazing and amazingly self-destructive. It sends a message that they will not oppose groups of Iraqis breaking the law. This will not be seen as tolerance, but weakness.

* Rape and home robberies

There are reports of both according to the BBC in Basra and I can expect the same in Baghdad. That's the trigger to building home arsenals and then developing local militias. People will protect their families from harm. And this is where charismatic leadership starts. The former Iran-Iraq War vet who beats a looter with his bare hands then becomes the local hero, starts gathering men around, and acquires a base of power.

Sound familiar? That's how the Taliban started in Afghanistan. The local warlords were pulling out teenagers and raping them and robbing the truck drivers. The locals, not into seeing their boys raped, formed a band of guerrillas. The rest, as they say, is history.

* The US Authority is slow to get off the ground

Iraq had a state-run economy. Most Iraqis depended on the state for food and work. Without a viable state, they will be able to get neither. That means illness and starvation. Starving, ill people will look to leadership from any quarter. The only way to prevent this is the timely delivery of security and food, water and healthcare.

*Factionalism starts to grow

We already have the indications of factionalism. The murder of an exile Shia cleric is a hint that the locals are not eager for their brethren to return home and start running things. Many of these exiles have been gone for decades. But the thing which could be worrisome is when the exiles start to gather local gunmen.

What could be a real problem is when the INC meets and Ahmed Chalabi starts to take a major role. The SCIRI, the largest and best armed of the exile groups, is clearly not interested in any role in an American-led occupation government. Its leader, Ayatollah Hakim Al-Bakir, has told anyone who asks that he would resist a US occupation. The murder of two Shia clerics, while not tied to him, could be a hint of what is to come.

The Kurds have two parties, the KDP and PUK, each who occasionally fight with each other. Both now occupy Kirkuk. Only one has agreed to leave. The US is promising to get them both to leave. There is no guarantee the US can make that happen. If the PUK leaves and the KDP doesn't, that's going to make one group look like a sucker.

Meanwhile, the Turks are watching and will invade if they have to. This is the key national security issue for Turkey. They will not tolerate a Kurdish state and if Iraq is slipping, they may feel obliged to move.

* Anti-Americanism coalesces into a coherent movement

It's one thing to have individuals come up to Marines saying go home. It's another to have a crowd marching saying that. Once you start to have groups come together over a central theme-opposing American power-you will be creating the circumstances for various groups to start funding these efforts. The Arab world is desperately unhappy about the US invasion. It would take very little for money to flow from one bank account to another.

The first signs of real trouble and things could get ugly quickly from here is if Shia clerics, remember Shias are 60 percent of the country, declare that their people must oppose the US. Once that moral and religious grounding is established, opposition will explode because it will be justified to the majority of people.

Money means power. It means you can get and keep an army functioning. The disappearance of the Iraqi Army means there are hundreds of thousands of trained, led men who could appear to bolster an anti-American movement clandestinely. The US intelligence would be slow to pick this up and could only realize it exists after a massive street march, where the kids march first and the hard men come behind, with AK's and RPG's in their hands. A naked challenge to US power could result in a bloody embarassment. The lack of social order and a police force would place crowd control in US hands. And with the widespread distribution of gasmasks and chemical suits, tear gas would simply be pointless.

Remember, both Syria and Iran need the US to fail. They could be ready sources of revenue for anti-Americans ready to act. Keep in mind, the Iraqi Army is in hiding. Even if they went home, they didn't just disappear. Their commanders can find them if they need to.

* The factionalism turns to violence

It will start small. Assassinations, maybe a shoot out or two in a distant province away from direct US control. Maybe a US official or an exile. Then the killings move to mob-style violence, car bombs, gunfights, kidnappings, murders. As the pace of the killings grow, you start to see organized formations. Maybe 1000 men, maybe 1500. They start to use heavier weapons, rockets, mortars, machine guns in their internecine battles. Neighborhoods, then towns, start to fall into disorder. Local militias now control the area. These areas start to spread. Instead of the looting and raping you see now, you see nothing but order. You don't steal a loaf of bread in these areas. People who do, get killed, publicly.

This means that there are now local groups who can provide a coherent opposition to the US.

* There are moves to consolidate power

The groups grow, they bump up against each other, they keep killing. And then they choose sides. A group of Shia decide to openly challenge the occupation government and declare their own rule, the Kurdish parties start in against each other, the INC collapses and the wild card, Saddam supporters decide to throw their lot in with the Shia and reveal where their weapons are. The Army splits along ethnic lines and you have the Sunni divisions and Republican Guard against the Shia units and the generals decide to join one group or the other.

Now, some of these signs may blend together, but briefly put, the signs of civil war are when disorganized opposition becomes organized around a central theme and players with money and weapons join the cause. A civil war is organized killing, not just looting. I don't think Iraq is close to it, yet. But things can go either way. The INC can be accepted. Or it can be rejected violently. It depends on how and if the US can organize and feed the people.

If they can't, then these other factors can come into play. There are too many guns and too many players and unless the US can pay them off and bring order, people will create order and not in a way we would prefer.