Sunni Arab antigovernment and al Qaeda gunmen now make no secret of their desire to trigger a religious and ethnic based civil war in Iraq. Attacks on Kurds (who are not Arabs) and Shia Arabs (who practice the form of Islam prevalent in neighboring Iran) are increasing. Only a minority of Kurds and Shia Arabs are affected, because most of those populations live in parts of Iraq where there are no Sunni Arabs, or where the local Sunni Arab leaders have kept the gunmen out. The major battlegrounds are cities like Mosul and Kirkuk. Saddam Hussein had, for over a decade, forced Kurdish families out of these cities, and moved in Sunni Arabs. It was ethnic cleansing at its most blunt. But large Kurdish minorities remain, and more Kurds, and their guns, are returning. In central Iraq, Sunni Arab gunmen roam the roads that Shia Arabs use to travel between the majority of Shia Arabs in the south, and the large minority of Shia Arabs in Baghdad.
There are two reasons why the civil war has not broken out yet. First, the Sunni Arab gunmen represent a minority in the Sunni Arab community. The best information on how many gunmen there are is in the coalition intelligence files. These were recently enhanced by a huge haul of information in Fallujah. The number is kept secret, mainly to not let the enemy know what is known about them, but also because the coalition has, in some respects, a better idea of who is in the antigovernment forces than any of the antigovernment faction leaders. One thing that makes the current situation different than the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90, is that the Sunni Arabs are not united to fight anyone. The antigovernment forces represent several factions, and many other larger factions want no part of a civil war.
This illuminates the second reason for no civil war; the Sunni Arabs are vastly outnumbered and likely to get quickly smashed. This is made worse by the fact that 80 percent of the population (the Kurds and Shia Arabs) would like to see the Sunni Arabs "punished" for generations of tyranny. Most Sunni Arabs understand this, but the minority who continue to murder and molest Shia Arabs and Kurds spend most of their efforts on terrorizing their fellow Sunni Arabs. The campaign to terrorize Sunni Arab men into not joining the police and army is, so far, not working. While many Sunni Arab men do have second thoughts about joining, many more are still determined to serve for patriotic reasons, or just to get a job, or seek revenge for a murdered relative.
Revenge, and meeting violence with violence, is also keeping the Sunni Arab gangs at bay in their attacks on Kurds and Shia Arabs. Both these groups are heavily armed and comprise more and more of the army and special police units operating in Sunni Arab areas. It's largely the Sunni Arab police and soldiers who you hear about fleeing attacks. It's Shia Arab, and particularly Kurdish, police and soldiers who you hear about making raids and fighting off attacks. While several dozen people are being killed each week by the Sunni Arab violence, this is in a country of 25 million people. And most of the violence is concentrated in areas containing about a third of the population. For the vast majority of Iraqis, the violence is something that is happening to someone else. This is one of positive aspects of tribalism.
However, the government knows that sending too many Kurdish and Shia Arab police and soldiers into Sunni Arab areas risks driving more Sunni Arab tribes and factions into active opposition. So far, the government has an offer that is hard to refuse for Sunni Arab tribes and local leaders. If the local leadership calls out their gunmen and helps keep the antigovernment forces out, the government will send in reconstruction projects (money and jobs), and keep out the much feared American soldiers. One reason the government finally authorized the Fallujah attack was to make it unmistakably clear that no one, no matter what they say on al Jazeera, can survive a fight with the U.S. troops. Following this, the government wants to convince enough Sunni Arabs, that the antigovernment forces are acting against the interests of all Iraqis, to generate a strong pro-government attitude throughout the Sunni Arab areas. Right now, too many Sunni Arabs are being neutral, not willing to risk the attention of the terrorists. In this respects, the terrorists are not winning, just delaying their ultimate defeat.