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White House Wages War of Words Over 'Civil' Term

"If they can't characterize what's going on in Iraq in an honest fashion, we can't begin to address the problem," said retired Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey. ("Meet The Press" Via Getty Images)

Polls suggest that most Americans have already settled this debate in their minds -- 61 percent of those surveyed in September by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal described the situation in Iraq as a civil war, while 65 percent agreed in a CNN poll and 72 percent in a Gallup poll. Of those who described the conflict as "out of control" and a "civil war" in a later Gallup-USA Today poll, 84 percent called U.S. involvement a mistake, compared with 25 percent of those who did not view the situation that way.

"There's a good deal of research to suggest that the American public is less willing to use troops to intervene in other countries' civil wars than in humanitarian-type missions," said Christopher F. Gelpi, a Duke University scholar who has studied public opinion in wartime. "So even if the facts on the ground are the same . . . the label used has a substantial effect on public opinion. That's why they're fighting over it."

Language also has the power to influence events in Iraq, where leaders engage in a similar debate. "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is," former prime minister Ayad Allawi said as far back as eight months ago. But the current prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, adamantly rejects the term, and analysts said his fragile government risks collapsing if it accepts the premise.

"There is a very tenuous and very weak hold on legitimacy," said Peter Khalil, a Eurasia Group consultant who served as a U.S. security adviser in Iraq. "If they were to admit that, then that last strand gets unraveled. You're not far off from falling off the ledge."

Kurt M. Campbell, a Pentagon official in the Clinton administration, said many key players in Iraq have not engaged in violence but could decide to weigh in if they think the conflict has evolved into an all-out struggle for power -- which means the Iraqis and Americans have a legitimate reason to fear the disputed phrase.

"It may trigger the thing you're trying to forestall," he said. "It's not simply a matter of political correctness and trying to avoid harsh reaction." But Campbell, who is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it may soon be too late. "Where we're at right now is so close to all-out civil unrest that in the next few weeks if it continues the way it's going, it'll be all but unavoidable."

Polling director Jon Cohen contributed to this report.

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