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Debate over civil war in Iraq masks deeper divisions

BAGHDAD, Iraq — America’s hand-wringing over whether the violence in Iraq amounts to a civil war, while on the surface a semantic distinction, mirrors deeper divisions over how far the U.S. should go to try to salvage a desperate situation.
    Politicians recognize that what they call the military challenge in Iraq can influence what the public thinks about the struggle — nearly futile or merely dire, daunting or winnable.
    Calling the violence in Iraq a civil war implies that the ethnic and sectarian divisions in Iraq are irreconcilable, short of a military victory by one faction over the others, and that victory — if it can come at all — will take years and cost many more American lives.
    Jessica Tuchman Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said the debate over what to call the conflict is political to its core. ‘‘The entire debate is a proxy for: how bad is it?’’ she said.
    Some who see Iraq embroiled in a civil war argue the evident failure of the U.S. military to stem the chaos proves Washington should withdraw U.S. troops and take Americans out of harm’s way. Others say the phrase is accurate, but suggest that the U.S. should be ready to pour more troops into the region, stay much longer than anyone expected, or both.
    Those who blame the daily bloodshed on terrorists and thugs tend to be more optimistic, saying that the U.S. can still help Iraqis build the foundation for a stable, democratic nation in the Middle East. Those who say Iraq is embroiled in civil war, they say, exaggerate the price of success.
    The most prominent critic of the civil war label is, of course, President Bush, who persuaded the United States to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein in 2003 — triggering an insurgency that no one in his administration seemed to anticipate.
    ‘‘There’s a lot of sectarian violence taking place, fomented in my opinion because of the attacks by al-Qaida causing people to seek reprisal,’’ Bush said Tuesday. ‘‘I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.’’
    The term civil war has various definitions, some more stringent than others. Webster’s New World College Dictionary calls it a ‘‘war between geographical sections or political factions of the same nation.’’ The Web site www.GlobalSecurity.org sets out five criteria: rivals must control territory, have a functioning government, enjoy some foreign recognition, control identifiable regular armed forces and mount major military operations.
    James Phillips, a research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the conservative Heritage Foundation, who believes the U.S. should continue to fight in Iraq, prefers to call the violence a ‘‘terrorist shadow war.’’
    In a civil war, Phillips said, two clearly defined sides fight for territory in a politically divided nation. That’s not true in Iraq, where multiple factions are competing for power, Sunni insurgents hold no territory and there is still a national army.
    The term civil war suggests two sides that are morally equivalent, he said, but in Iraq insurgents are trying to topple a democratically elected government that deserves American protection.
    The label is also important, he said, because calling the conflict a civil war would lead Americans to think: ‘‘We don’t have a dog in that fight.’’
    Alberto Fernandez, director of public diplomacy for the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs called efforts to label the conflict a civil war part of a political ‘‘blame game.’’
    ‘‘What is more important than the blame game is to see the future path to save Iraq,’’ Fernandez said.
    Mathews, of the Carnegie endowment, also believes it matters what Americans call the Iraq war. The label, she said in an interview, better reflects the high level of violence in Iraq and ‘‘gets Americans recognizing what’s happening there.’’
    Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who said two years ago that the Bush administration made a ‘‘massive miscalculation’’ about the insurgency in Iraq, also defines the fighting in Iraq as a civil war.
    ‘‘Iraq is already in a state of at least limited civil war, and may well be escalating to the level of a major civil conflict,’’ he said this week.
    Despite this gloomy view, though, Cordesman believes it is too early even to set a timetable for withdrawal.
    Daniel Byman, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, wrote in the Washington Post in August: ‘‘The debate is over: By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war. Indeed, the only thing standing between Iraq and a descent into total Bosnia-like devastation is 135,000 U.S. troops — and even they are merely slowing the fall.’’
    In an interview, Byman explained that Iraq meets all the accepted social science criteria for a civil war: ‘‘over 1,000 battle deaths, multiple centers of authority,’’ and a significant number of refugees.
    Byman, in fact, says there is an imminent danger that the conflict will widen into a ‘‘large-scale civil conflict’’ across the region. Unlike those who say the U.S. should stay out of any civil war, though, Byman has written that Iraq could require hundreds of thousands of foreign troops and ‘‘overwhelming military power to nail down a political settlement’’ and prevent the conflict from spreading to neighboring nations.
    The media traffics in words, and the political struggle over the use of the term civil war has complicated reporting on the conflict. Some U.S. news organizations — including NBC News and the Los Angeles Times — have decided to call the Iraq conflict a civil war. Some have not. The Associated Press does not preclude using the term.
    The civil war label has political overtones in Iraq as well as in the U.S. For many officials in Baghdad, as in Washington, adopting it might feel like an admission of failure.
    Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met President Bush on Thursday, and like Bush insists there is no civil war in his country, despite the daily drumbeat of bombings, ambushes and death-squad murders. Perhaps disingenuously, he blames the carnage on immature and garrulous politicians who incite violence with vitriolic speeches.
    But the policy implications of the phrase for some powerful Iraqis is the reverse of what it is for critics of the war in the United States.
    Al-Maliki said the absence of a civil war is not an argument for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq. Quite the opposite. U.S. forces, he said, should withdraw because their presence is causing divisions within Iraqi society.
    Iraqi politicians, in fact, tend to blame most of their nation’s problems on the U.S. occupation and other foreign influences, rather than internal tensions. Calling the fighting a civil war here would acknowledge that the violence had deep roots inside the country.
    ‘‘It is not civil war, but the result of what is taking place is by far more dangerous that what happened in past civil wars,’’ said Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister Salam Zikam Ali al-Zubaie, a Sunni Arab, speaking on Arabiyah on Wednesday.
    The violence, he said, was the result of what he called ‘‘political chaos and a dangerous foreign agenda.’’
    ———
    Steven R. Hurst is AP chief of bureau in Iraq. AP Writer Sarah DiLorenzo contributed from New York.

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