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Phrase ignites a war over words

With sectarian violence raging in Iraq and President Bush grasping for options, the question of whether Iraqis are locked in a civil war has taken on new urgency.

The term is fraught with emotional overtones and policy implications, which is why it sparks lively arguments and strong push-back from the White House. Bush vehemently rejects the idea that Iraq is engaged in a civil war, while a growing chorus of scholars and strategists says that is exactly what the civilian death toll and factional strife amount to.

The national news media are grappling with the issue as well, as evidenced by Monday's announcement from NBC News that, after much consideration, it had decided to use the phrase.

In a nod to how sensitive the topic has become, the network's Matt Lauer noted, "We didn't just wake up on a Monday morning and say, 'Let's call this a civil war.' This took careful deliberation."

The Los Angeles Times began using "civil war" in October. The phrase also has appeared in stories in the Christian Science Monitor, Newsweek magazine and the McClatchy chain of newspapers.

Bush has said he would not allow U.S. troops to be caught "in the crossfire between rival factions." Conceding that a civil war has broken out in Iraq could undermine that promise and increase pressure for a quick pullout of American forces.

At the same time, labeling the conflict as a civil war could deepen public distaste for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq, replacing Bush's stated goals - annihilating terrorism and planting the seeds of Middle Eastern democracy - with a referee's role that would be harder to justify, analysts said.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said what's happening in Iraq doesn't fit the definition of a civil war.

"What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy - which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy," Snow said.

Still, most scholars agree that civil war is defined as a situation in which clearly defined groups from the same country battle each other for political influence. The conflict also must claim significant casualties. Sunni and Shia violence, including revenge killings, have escalated steadily in Iraq this year, and Iraq's health minister estimated this month that as many as 150,000 civilians had been killed in the war.

"If you accept 'civil war,' it is seen as marking yet another step toward what is perceived as defeat politically" for the Bush administration, said Anthony Cordesman, a national security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You have people using the term because they're dramatizing the problems, and you have the White House making the argument because it wants to stay the course."

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