U.S. Avoids Calling Iraqi Violence a 'Civil War'

Despite the increase in sectarian violence in Iraq, administration and military officials refuse to describe the situation as a civil war. An admission that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war could force changes to policy, strategy and tactics.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now in addition to the debate over what to do in Iraq, there's a debate over how to describe it. And the words we use to talk about Iraq can actually affect what we do about it. Here's NPR national security correspondent Jackie Northam.

JACKIE NORTHAM: From the first days of the war, administration and military officials have carefully chosen their words when describing the violence that has increasingly gripped Iraq.

Unidentified Man #1: ...ongoing challenges in Baghdad and elsewhere.

Unidentified Man #2: ...ongoing conflict in Baghdad.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: ...sectarian violence.

Unidentified Man #3: ...sectarian violence.

Unidentified Man #4: ...sectarian violence.

Unidentified Man #5: ...sectarian violence.

NORTHAM: But there's one term that officials have never used to describe the situation in Iraq. That is civil war. What exactly constitutes a civil war should be clear. Webster's New World Dictionary defines it as, quote, "a war between geographical or political factions of the same nation." Period. End quote. American Heritage Dictionary has a similar definition.

Major General WILLIAM NASH (Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations; U.S. Army, Retired): They've hesitated to use the term civil war because it denotes a failure of American policy in building a, quote, "democratic Iraq."

NORTHAM: Retired Army Major General William Nash is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He says there are several struggles going on simultaneously in Iraq. Foreign jihadists and common criminals are creating a dangerous situation, but at the bottom of the conflict is a struggle for power and survival among three huge warring factions: the Shia, the Sunni and the Kurds. Nash says for that reason there needs to be a clear-headed assessment of what's going on in Iraq.

Maj. Gen. NASH: One of the biggest problems we've had in Iraq since day one is not coming to grips with the reality on the ground. We've used far too many euphemisms in describing what's actually happening. Making sure we understand that there is in fact a civil war for power in Iraq taking place will be to our advantage as we try to figure out how to solve the problems.

NORTHAM: But what would change if the administration finally declared it a civil war in Iraq? Robert Killebrew, a retired Army colonel and now a private defense consultant, says if the definition of the war changes from bringing democracy to Iraq to a civil war in which both sides are judged to be at fault, then it could change the way U.S. forces are being used if the violence spins out of control.

Colonel ROBERT KILLEBREW (U.S. Army, Retired): The way we're using our forces now is working with the government of Iraq and the Iraqi military to try to restore stability to Iraq. And that is a moral, defensible, legitimate use of our armed forces. If we say it's a civil war, and for all practical purposes it is, then we have to decide if we're on the side of the government fighting against the other half of the civil war or if we're going to back off.

NORTHAM: Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, says if the violence reaches this point, the Bush administration will have to make hard decisions about choosing sides.

Mr. ANTHONY CORDESMAN (Military Analyst, Center for Strategic & International Studies): That is a much higher risk strategy. And once you do it at all, you set a precedent which potentially could commit the U.S. to a level of intervention and violence radically different from what we have.

NORTHAM: Cordesman says the problem with not calling it a civil war is that it prevents a change in strategy, such as implementing long overdue plans.

Mr. CORDESMAN: We haven't offered major new incentives to the various sides to compromise; things like financial aid or solutions to the problem of allocating oil resources and revenues. We haven't made a new effort to revitalize the training of police and Iraqi forces.

NORTHAM: Admitting Iraq is in the midst of a civil war could also prompt a regional dialogue between countries that might not want to fight in Iraq but certainly don't want to see their neighbor implode, says retired Army General Barry McCaffrey.

General BARRY MCCAFFREY (U.S. Army, Retired): The best of terms, you know, we'd see a peace conference regionally hosted by the Saudis, co-hosted by the U.N. You've got to get the Syrians and the Iranians and the Turks involved in it for sure. That kind of a political dialogue certainly couldn't worsen the situation, and it would likely resolve some mitigation of the violence that's ongoing.

NORTHAM: McCaffrey says the solution is probably more a political one than a military one. There need to be new ways to help the Iraqi government function and create a viable Iraqi military. McCaffrey says that starts with the clear sense of the situation on the ground, and that means acknowledging that Iraq is in fact already in a civil war.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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