Is Iraq a civil war? Scholars say yes. Media debate it.

Sensitive to bias charges, news outlets have avoided the term 'civil war,' but now that's changing.

Bit by bit, the mainstream media are referring to the war in Iraq as a "civil war" in news coverage. NBC News took the leap on Monday. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have made the switch. Other news organizations are still using "sectarian conflict" or "on the verge of civil war," but are actively debating using the more loaded term, which the Bush administration still eschews.

Most scholars who study war view the Iraq situation as a civil war; the only debate is when it became one – in 2004 when the US transferred sovereignty to Iraqis, or early this year when the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra sparked a wave of sectarian violence that continues? Academics cite the standard definition of civil war: groups from the same country fighting for political control, and a death toll of at least 1,000. A majority of Americans view the conflict as a civil war, polls show.

The debate over terminology seems to have sprung from the latest surge in sectarian violence, and perhaps from a greater sense of freedom among US media, after the November elections, to call the situation as they see it without being accused of political bias, analysts say.

"It's a political debate, not a semantic debate or a theoretical debate," says David Gergen, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former adviser to four US presidents of both parties. "In politics, the conventional wisdom has held for some time that if the public concludes our soldiers were in the middle of a civil war, they would think it hopeless and want to withdraw quickly."

Mr. Gergen says the administration's resistance to the term is understandable. "Calling it a civil war, in the minds of many supporters of the war, could pull the plug on all remaining support," he says.

The Bush administration, along with its British allies, is not alone is resisting the term "civil war." UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned on Monday that Iraq was "almost there." But as UN chief, he too faces political considerations in his use of terminology. And at this delicate moment, with the US-led coalition and Middle East nations considering next steps, Mr. Annan is walking a careful line.

In the academic world, British war historian John Keegan writes in the current issue of Prospect magazine that the Iraq war does not meet his own criteria for civil war, which include "identifiability of the combatants." By Mr. Keegan's definition, there have been only five civil wars since the 17th century. By the reckoning of Molly Toft, an expert on civil wars at the Kennedy School, there have been 142 since 1940.

For the mainstream media, whose franchise on the news has been under increasing challenge, bucking the administration early on in the war would have been seen as a political statement that they were not willing to make.

"There's a tendency on the part of the mainstream media to defer to the basic definitions of the administration, and I think that's what happened here," says Chris Hanson, who teaches journalism at the University of Maryland.

The press, in an almost unconscious way, did not want to be drawn into a situation where it might be blamed for the outcome, and so has danced around flat assertions that Iraq is in civil war, he says.

"There's a nervousness about appearing to make a political decision, when in fact it should be based on reality rather than political," says Bill Kovach, a counselor at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. "But explaining all that is too difficult for most news organizations, or has been."

Since the start of the war, news organizations have preferred to describe events on the ground, rather than applying labels. But now, a growing number of news organizations are willing to change their approach, and explain why. On Monday, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller released a statement on the paper's decision to allow news reporters and editors to describe Iraq as being in "civil war" when they see fit.

"We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations, not for dramatic effect," Mr. Keller wrote. "The main shortcoming of 'civil war' is that, like other labels, it fails to capture the complexity of what is happening on the ground. The war in Iraq is, in addition to being a civil war, an occupation, a Baathist insurgency, a sectarian conflict, a front in a war against terrorists, a scene of criminal gangsterism and a cycle of vengeance. We believe 'civil war' should not become reductionist shorthand for a war that is colossally complicated."

Similarly, The Christian Science Monitor has used a wide number of terms. Two of its news articles out of Iraq this week referred to the nation's "deepening civil war" and to "driving Iraq further into civil war." "We try to give our reporters a reasonable amount of analytical freedom to describe what they find in plain language, but not to force conclusions on readers," says Managing Editor Marshall Ingwerson. "In the end, I think our language has shifted as gradually as the situation in Iraq has evolved."

Some observers believe President Bush should accede to growing public perception and agree that Iraq is in a state of civil war – and then explain what he proposes to do. Perceptions of a "credibility gap" on Iraq have dogged the administration, and an acceptance of the public's view could help bring the public along with next steps.

"They'd be better off acknowledging the reality that it is a civil war, and then say, 'Let me tell you why we still need to stay here and fight and here's why it's still an important mission,' says Chris Gelpi, an expert on war and public opinion at Duke University.

An important aspect of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's forthcoming recommendations will be whether the group refers to Iraq as being in civil war, says Gergen.

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