NBC Is Latest to Deem Iraq to Be in Civil War

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This morning on NBC's The Today Show, Matt Lauer said his network would begin calling the situation in Iraq a civil war. NBC is joining The Los Angeles Times and the McClatchy papers in using the term. But the White House insists that the situation in Iraq still falls short of a civil war.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

The White House has repeatedly characterized the escalating violence in Iraq as limited sectarian strife fueled by terrorists. The administration has said this is not a civil war. The news media has been moving carefully around that rhetorical minefield.

But now, as NPR's David Folkenflik reports, several major news organizations are defining the war on their own terms.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: This morning Matt Lauer of NBC's Today Show announced his network had concluded the conflict in Iraq is an outright civil war.

(Soundbite of program, “The Today Show”)

Mr. MATT LAUER (Host, “The Today Show”): We should mention we didn't just wake up on a Monday morning and say let's call this a civil war. This took careful deliberation. We consulted with a lot of people.

FOLKENFLIK: Sister-channel MSNBC has also embraced the change. They were the latest in the past few days to take the plunge. On Saturday, the Los Angeles Times described the fighting between Iraqi Sunnis and Shia and a civil war. McClatchy, a chain of major regional newspapers that includes the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Miami Herald, filed a tough story this morning from Baghdad.

Mr. JOHN WALCOTT: (Washington Bureau Chief, McClatchy): The headline on the McClatchy Washington bureau Web site is neighborhood by neighborhood, Baghdad descends into civil war.

FOLKENFLIK: That's John Walcott, the chain's Washington bureau chief. Walcott says the violence has gradually escalated into civil war, but he says much of the news media has been reluctant to use the phrase and has instead gotten tangled up in what he calls semantic debates.

Mr. WALCOTT: Those have included some fairly silly arguments, in my judgment, about well, it's not civil war because it's not happening everywhere in the country. By that definition, the American Civil War was not a civil war because there was no fighting in Maine.

FOLKENFLIK: Walcott says the phrase carries a punch because many Americans oppose sending U.S. troops to fight in another country's civil war. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said today that sectarian violence in Iraq has entered a new phase, but U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack again told reporters today that the term civil war doesn't describe events on the ground there.

Mr. SEAN McCORMACK (State Department): It's not our view, and more importantly, it's not the view of Prime Minister Maliki, and I think that he would be in the best position to judge such things.

FOLKENFLIK: NPR has used the phrase civil war in addition to other terms to describe what its editors call a complex situation. Here's how NPR host Debbie Elliott introduced a story just last weekend.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: Across Iraq, the latest wave of sectarian violence is claiming more lives. Baghdad has been in a state of lockdown for the past two days as the government tries to keep the country from spiraling into all out civil war.

FOLKENFLIK: Noted presidential historian Robert Dallek has been critical of the Bush administration's handling of the war. He says there's a key reason for the fight over the rhetoric.

Mr. ROBERT DALLEK (Presidential Historian): The Bush administration has resisted describing events in Iraq as a civil war because it would be tantamount to acknowledging that their policies have failed.

FOLKENFLIK: Not all the media have shifted. The Wall Street Journal still refers to the conflict in Iraq. Both ABC and Fox News Channel are continuing to call it the war in Iraq, though an ABC News spokesman says the issue is constantly under review.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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