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The Wagging of the 'Civil' Tongues

At a news conference, President Bush acknowledged that
At a news conference, President Bush acknowledged that "I hear a lot of talk about civil war" in Iraq but maintained that "the Iraqis want a unified country." (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)

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By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

It's official: The Iraq Civil War has begun -- not necessarily in Iraq, but in Washington, where an all-out fight has broken out over whether what is happening on the Tigris can be called a civil war.

"You know, I hear a lot of talk about civil war," President Bush said at the top of a news conference yesterday. "I'm concerned about that, of course."

But not that concerned. An unusually gloomy Bush admitted with Carter-esque candor that he has been "frustrated" and that Iraq is "straining the psyche of our country." Civil war, however, was not part of his confession. "The security forces remain united behind the government," he said.

Two hours later, former ambassador Peter Galbraith presented a rather different view to the Middle East Institute in Dupont Circle. "There is a civil war, and it is a lot like Lebanon in the '70s and '80s," he declared. "The United States basically has a choice: Either we use our forces to stop the civil war, or we withdraw."

The uninitiated might wonder about the point of such a dispute. With 3,500 civilians killed in Iraq last month, you could call it a ham sandwich and the scene would be no less gruesome. But don't tell that to policymakers here.

Gen. John Abizaid, the top U.S. commander for the region, started the name game earlier this month, when he told a Senate committee that "it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."

About the same time, William Patey, the departing British ambassador to Iraq, cautioned that "a low-intensity civil war and a de facto division of Iraq is probably more likely at this stage than a successful and substantial transition to a stable democracy."

That's all Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) needed to hear. "This is a civil war," he declared.

Facing a linguistic insurrection, the administration rallied its semantic defenses. "They have sectarian differences, and some of those are violent," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said. "It's not civil war."

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld argued that Iraq would not have civil war until the Confederates attack Fort Sumter. "It seems to me that it is not a classic civil war at this stage," Professor Rumsfeld argued. "It certainly isn't like our civil war."

And White House press secretary Tony Snow was categorical. "There is not a civil war going on," he said last week.

But the label would not go away. "We in fact are in probably a low-grade, maybe a very defined civil war," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) proposed over the weekend.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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