There has been much to do about one of the American news networks beginning to use the term "civil war" to describe the conditions in Iraq. The plain English meaning of the term "civil war" is "a war between political factions or regions within the same country" (source: dictionary.com). I am not certain I would classify what is going on in Iraq as civil war. But, all this begs the question then of what exactly is Iraq involved in, if not civil war?
On first blush, one might be inclined to say de facto anarchy, but I am not sure if that term is completely accurate either, since, at least theoretically, you can have non-violent anarchy (again I stress in theory), if anarchy is simply lack of government. There is some semblance in Iraq of government, inept as it might be.
I think the rhetorial problem of definitions here revolves not only the modifier "civil" but also "war" itself. I think this is the trap that we walked into in Iraq in the first place. Most people tend to think of war more in the classic Western definition, where there are (usually two but perhaps more) sides with coherent armies or bands of guerillas and, to a lesser extent, the conventional idea of war with military objectives, front lines of hot conflict over land to gain or lose with "behind the lines" being relatively safe if somewhat nebulous as a place and term. Guerilla war throws these characteristics and expectations out the window, essentially.
But even in Guerilla war, there are general principles that insurgents target anything believed to be related to the military occupier, whether that be a military base or townspeople believed to collaborators. When guerillas cease to follow this outline and simply become a rampaging army targeting everyone, then it becomes a matter of war crimes.
I don't find the term "sectarian violence" that has been used by the media all that convincing a term either for the Iraq situation because of this. Sectarian violence is limited in scope, and, depending on the specific perpetrator, may or may not have a larger, systematic tactical and political agenda. It may just be nihilisitic chaos for the sake of chaos, or it may in fact be a part of what might pass as a military entity of sub-belligerent status, not unlike the VietCong.
That brings up the spectre of Vietnam, and I don't like making comparisons to Vietnam and Iraq, because I think they are distinctly different in a number of ways on a number of different levels. Most people will agree that Vietnam was, in fact, a "war" when it fact its technical designation to this day in the Congressional Annals is the "Vietnam Conflict," which in other parts of the annals' footnotes defines "conflict" as a "police action." Of course, for that matter, the American Civil War was likewise never officially labelled as such. It is technically the "War of the Rebellion." My bachelors' theses in military history and political science were on this.
I am not convinced that the term "civil war" is an actual designation except in extremely defined circumstances of traditional military armies of equal or near equal strength fighting a conventional war with both claimants having equally legitimate claims to political power. I think if "rebellion" enters the equation, then the term "civil war" is off the table because the power dynamic of occupier and rebel in a rebellion supercedes a civil war involving equal claimants to power.
I think what I would argue is that the Iraqi realm itself (and not the factions that are fighting) is a belligerent tactical anarchy. A military "belligerent" is an intermediate diplomatic term given by neutral countries to rebels in a rebellion/civil war. A "belligerent" is recognized by the neutral country as having a right to armed revolt, but is not recognized as a full combatant. This means that the belligerent is not diplomatically recognized as a sovereign entity or country but as a group that has a right to revolt. For instance, in the American Civil War, the South was given belligerent status by Great Britain, which means that Parliament and the King could hear Southern delegates and sell them arms under the table, recognize their right to revolt etc., but all the while never actually recognizing the South as a sovereign nation. This created international diplomatic plausible deniability, but that is a discussion for a later time.
I would argue the region of Iraq itself has the right to belligerent status because it is an occupied country. I think this is the fallacy of the American policy in that we are ironically trying to impose democracy via militarily occupational police action. Democracy has to be organic and not synthetic. Synthetic democracy is philosophically flawed because it is largely a house of cards that will easily fall once the table (in this instance as with South Vietnam the table being the US money/military/etc.) is removed from underneath it.
At least in classic guerilla warfare, there is an occupier and an insurgent. There may be more than one group of insurgents, but the fact remains that all groups do have one goal, and that goal is to remove the occupying force. Only after the occupying force is removed are the pluriform insurgents free to duke it out in "civil war." What is unique about Iraq is that this regional belligerency has characteristics of sectarian violence, insurgency, guerilla warfare, and civil war without being clearly in any one camp. The wild card in Iraq that I don't think anyone calculated was what I describe as tactical anarchy. By tactical anarchy I mean that all rules of war are completely off. There is no Just War theory operative here, because I don't believe just war theory is particularly helpful in the guerilla context. And I don't even think the case can be made that Iraq is even to the level of guerilla war.
The complete blur of miltant and civilian takes Guerilla warfare in Iraq to the next level. All people can be insurgents and targets with the added kicker being that there is no uniformity of insurgency. Most of the militant groups want rid of the US, but they also want be rid of the other factions at the same time. Thus, you end up with several different factions with several different agendas working simultaneously on several different outcomes and all sides willing to do all this by whatever means necessary in any combination, whether it be lobbing bombs at the occupier or blowing up a market full of civilians or negotiating with Iran/Syria/Al Qaeda.
It is for these reasons that I believe Iraq is best described as a belligerent tactical anarchy, and not as a "civil war" or engulfed in "sectarian violence." I think those terms are far too simplistic to be of any use to anyone trying to actually make Iraq a better place. Please feel free to disagree, but that's how I see it.