It's a Civil War, Stupid

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Monday, November 27, 2006; 1:02 PM

After nearly four years of letting the Bush Administration set the terms of the national debate over Iraq, some major news organizations are finally calling the conflict there what it is: a civil war. The White House is howling in protest.

Here's what Matt Lauer announced on NBC's Today Show this morning: "As you know, for months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war. And for the most part, news organizations, like NBC, have hesitated to characterize it as such. But, after careful consideration, NBC News has decided the change in terminology is warranted -- that the situation in Iraq, with armed militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas, can now be characterized as civil war." Here's some video of Lauer discussing the decision with retired general Barry McCaffrey.

NBC's First Read reports that the response was swift: "The White House is objecting this morning to descriptions of the Iraq conflict as a civil war. National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, 'The violence is primarily centered around Baghdad and Baghdad security and the increased training of Iraqi Security Forces is at the top of the agenda when [Bush and Maliki] meet later this week.'"

NBC is not alone. Here's Solomon Moore writing in the Saturday Los Angeles Times: "Iraq's civil war worsened Friday as Shiite and Sunni Arabs engaged in retaliatory attacks after coordinated car bombings that killed more than 200 people in a Shiite neighborhood the day before."

Newsweek editor and columnist Fareed Zakaria writes: "We're in the middle of a civil war and are being shot at by both sides.

"There can be no more doubt that Iraq is in a civil war, in which leaders of both its main communities, Sunnis and Shiites, are fomenting violence. . . .

"To speak, as the White House deputy press secretary did last week, of 'terrorists . . . targeting innocents in a brazen effort to topple a democratically elected government' totally misses the reality of Iraq today. Who are the terrorists and who are the innocents?"

Edward Wong wrote in the Sunday New York Times: "In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war. They fear that an acknowledgment by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of President Bush's Iraq policy.

"They also worry that the American people might not see a role for American troops in an Iraqi civil war and would more loudly demand a withdrawal.

"But in fact, many scholars say the bloodshed here already puts Iraq in the top ranks of the civil wars of the last half-century. The carnage of recent days -- beginning with bombings on Thursday in a Shiite district of Baghdad that killed more than 200 people -- reinforces their assertion. . . .

"'It's stunning; it should have been called a civil war a long time ago, but now I don't see how people can avoid calling it a civil war,' said Nicholas Sambanis, a political scientist at Yale who co-edited 'Understanding Civil War: Evidence and Analysis,' published by the World Bank in 2005. 'The level of violence is so extreme that it far surpasses most civil wars since 1945.' . . .

"On Friday, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, insisted that the Iraq conflict was not civil war, noting that Iraq's top leaders had agreed with that assessment. Last month, Tony Snow, the chief spokesman for President Bush, acknowledged that there were many groups trying to undermine the government, but said that there was no civil war because 'it's not clear that they are operating as a unified force. You don't have a clearly identifiable leader.'"

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