Ever since the fall of Saddam Hussain, the claim that Iraq is in a state of civil war has been made and unmade every three or four months on the average. Each time there is an exceptionally tragic spate of killings, Saddam nostalgics appear on TV to claim that Iraq is in a state of civil war and, thus, had better be left to its fate. Last week's media frenzy about "civil war in Iraq" is nothing new.
Before examining the aptness of the "civil war" claim, let us see who benefits from it.
The first beneficiary is Al Qaida, few of whose jihadists in Iraq are of Iraqi origin. Support for Al Qaida's strategy in Iraq comes not from Iraqis but from non-Iraqi pan-Islamists and former leftists, as anyone who watches Arab satellite television would know.
To present the violence in Iraq as civil war, would enable Al Qaida to claim some popular support among the Iraqis, and, thus, also a measure of legitimacy. With that logic the 9/11 attacks against the US could also be described as "civil war" because the same people who attacked New York and Washington also attacked Samarra and are now targeting Sadr City.
To present the conflict in Iraq as a civil war also benefits the remnants of the Saddamite clique. It presents them as one side of a conflict in which both sides can claim a degree of legitimacy thanks to their presumed respective popular bases. However, the fact is that the Saddamites have no such base. Even the vast majority of the Baath Party members recognise that Saddam had destroyed their party by turning it into an instrument of domination for himself and his Tikriti clan. The American decision to ban the Baath Party was wrong and has deeply angered many Baathists. However, few dream of putting the clock back by handing over the party and the country to Saddam and his cohorts.
The civil war claim also benefits the various militias, some with a veneer of political ideology and others nothing but organised criminal gangs, by casting them in a role they do not deserve. Many Iraqis fear them, and all loath them.
Also benefiting from the civil war claim are sectarian fanatics who have caused Iraq much grief whenever they had an opportunity.
In the West both schools of imperialism benefit from the civil war claim.
The first could be called the "let-them-stew-in-their-juice" school. It argues that Iraqis, and all other non-Western nations, are simply incapable of building people-based governments, and that any intervention by democratic nations is doomed.
The second school of imperialism now in fashion, arrives at the same conclusion from a different premise. One could call it the school of "We-are-to-blame-for-their-misfortunes." It is based on confusion, in which self-loathing alternates with self-aggrandisement. On the one hand we are told that all the miseries of non-Western nations result from Western colonialism and imperialism. On the other, we are told that non-Western nations deserve to live under despots because despotism reflects their cultures, even their religions.
The "We-are-to-blame" school claims that the West was responsible for installing and maintaining Saddam in power. At the same time, it claims that Iraqis deserve Saddam and that the US-led coalition was wrong in trying to give them a chance to seek something different. The various advocates of the "Iraq-is-in-civil war" theory come together with one slogan: the US-led coalition should leave Iraq to its fate and abandon the new system in the face of its enemies.
The problem is that most of those who assert that Iraq is in civil war lack the courage to face the questions that emanate from their claim.
The first is: which are the two sides in this civil war? Define!
The second is: what is each side fighting for? Spell out!
Finally, having identified the two sides in this civil war, which side are you on? Stick your neck out!
The American TV network NBC has announced with faintly ridiculous solemnity that it has decided that Iraq is in a state of civil war. So, it must now come out and tell its viewers who the two sides are, what they stand for and which side should the US and other nations support.
The fact, however, is that, right now, Iraq is not in civil war. Rather, it is a victim of foreign aggression combined with internal sectarian violence, revenge tactics and outright criminal activities. This does not mean that Iraq could not slide into civil war. There are conflicting visions for the new Iraq - visions as mutually exclusive as those that led to other civil wars, notably in Spain. For the time being, however, the overwhelming majority of those who support those rival visions prefer to fight for them within the constitution and its still fragile institutions.
The choice in Iraq is clear, if not simple.
Helping the constitutional system deepen its roots would reduce the threat of civil war because all rival visions would have at least a theoretical chance of winning popular support.
Abandoning new Iraq before it can defend itself, however, is sure to trigger the very civil war that so far exists only in NBC's imagination.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.