WASHINGTON -- With sectarian violence raging in Iraq and President Bush grasping for options, the question of whether Iraqis are locked in a civil war has taken on new urgency.
The term is fraught with emotional overtones and policy implications, which is why it sparks lively arguments and strong pushback from the White House. Bush vehemently rejects the idea that Iraq is engaged in a civil war, while a growing chorus of scholars and strategists says that is exactly what the staggering civilian death toll and factional strife amount to.
The national news media are grappling with the issue as well, as evidenced by yesterday's announcement from NBC News that, after much consideration, it had decided to use the phrase.
In a nod to how sensitive the topic has become, the network's Matt Lauer noted, "We didn't just wake up on a Monday morning and say, 'Let's call this a civil war.' This took careful deliberation."
Bush has said he would not allow U.S. troops to be caught "in the crossfire between rival factions." Conceding that a civil war has broken out in Iraq could undermine that promise and increase pressure for a quick withdrawal of American forces.
At the same time, labeling the conflict as a civil war could deepen public distaste for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, replacing Bush's stated goals -- annihilating terrorism and planting the seeds of Middle Eastern democracy -- with a referee's role that would be harder to justify, analysts said.
The White House continued to resist the notion that Iraq had descended into civil war. Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser, sidestepped a question on whether the label applies, saying that Iraqis do not believe there is a civil war.
"It is what it is. There is a high level of sectarian violence. It is a challenge for the Iraqis. It's a challenge for us," Hadley told reporters aboard Air Force One en route with the president to a NATO conference in Europe.
Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, who also talked with reporters aboard Bush's plane, said what's happening in Iraq does not fit the definition of a civil war.
"What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences and also trying to destabilize a democracy, which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy," Snow said.
Still, most scholars agree that civil war is defined as a situation in which clearly defined groups from the same country battle each other for political influence. The conflict must claim significant casualties, many say at least 1,000 lives. Sunni and Shiite violence, including brutal revenge killings, has escalated steadily in Iraq this year, and Iraq's health minister estimated this month that up to 150,000 civilians had been killed in the war.
Some of the Bush administration's strongest allies now openly use the term civil war to describe what is going on in Iraq.
Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister of Iraq, said last spring that with 50 to 60 Iraqis dying each day, "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is." Nouri al-Maliki, the current prime minister, has said there will "never be a civil war in Iraq."
Top administration and military officials, including Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. John P. Abizaid, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, have said that Iraq could be on the brink of civil war, though Bush has never accepted that characterization. Instead, the president says it is up to U.S. forces to prevent Iraq from devolving into such a conflict.
King Abdullah II of Jordan, who is to meet with Bush tomorrow in Amman to discuss the war, warned over the weekend that given the conflict in Iraq, tensions in Lebanon and the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, "We're juggling with the strong potential of three civil wars in the region." He told ABC that strong steps had to be taken to avert a "tremendous crisis."
Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there is no question that the situation on the ground in Iraq constitutes civil war. Arguing over whether that's true is "a remarkably silly semantic debate" that yields no solutions for the steadily increasing violence, he added.
"If you accept civil war, it is seen as marking yet another step toward what is perceived as defeat politically," Cordesman said of the Bush administration. "You have people using the term because they're dramatizing the problems, and you have the White House making the argument because it wants to stay the course."
Bush's pledge not to get U.S. troops caught in a crossfire is moot, Cordesman said. "They are already in Baghdad, trying to separate ethnic factions that are shooting at them," he said.
Bush is going to "convoluted lengths" to avoid the term civil war because he wants to avoid appearing to take sides in a raging internal battle, Peter W. Galbraith wrote in the most recent edition of New Republic magazine.
"But saying it isn't civil war doesn't make it so," said Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and Bush critic who has proposed partitioning Iraq. "Training and equipping Iraq's security forces as the United States is doing only produces more lethal combatants in the country's internecine conflict."
The potency of the term civil war comes from the fact that "it's not what we signed up for," said David Rothkopf of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "We went in there to replace a despotic government with a democratic government. We said we were there to get rid of terrorists. Well, which side are the terrorists?
"Now we find ourselves being a referee in a civil war. Neither side is us. It means that the premise for our national involvement and policies has been challenged and compromised," Rothkopf said.
Describing the situation in Iraq as a civil war would further reduce support for the war among the American people, who, research shows, will not tolerate U.S. casualties from intervention in that kind of conflict, analysts said.
"As bad as public support for the war is, it's likely to get worse if they see this as a civil war. It's a battle that the administration has largely lost already," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University researcher on war and public opinion. "It will raise the question in their minds, 'Well then, if this is a civil war, should we withdraw?'"
The term civil war is often used by critics of U.S. involvement to stoke public opposition, Gelpi added.
The Democratic Party pounced on NBC's announcement, accusing Bush of trying to "spin" the Iraq war by "splitting hairs."
"If you're lying dead on the street in Baghdad, I don't imagine it makes much difference" what the conflict is called, Rothkopf said, adding that the debate is "taking us away from" looking at the key moral and strategic questions about how the United States should handle it.