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Is Iraq a civil war? Scholars say yes. Media debate it.

Sensitive to bias charges, news outlets have avoided the term 'civil war,' but now that's changing.

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Bit by bit, the mainstream media are referring to the war in Iraq as a "civil war" in news coverage. NBC News took the leap on Monday. The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times have made the switch. Other news organizations are still using "sectarian conflict" or "on the verge of civil war," but are actively debating using the more loaded term, which the Bush administration still eschews.

Most scholars who study war view the Iraq situation as a civil war; the only debate is when it became one – in 2004 when the US transferred sovereignty to Iraqis, or early this year when the bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra sparked a wave of sectarian violence that continues? Academics cite the standard definition of civil war: groups from the same country fighting for political control, and a death toll of at least 1,000. A majority of Americans view the conflict as a civil war, polls show.

The debate over terminology seems to have sprung from the latest surge in sectarian violence, and perhaps from a greater sense of freedom among US media, after the November elections, to call the situation as they see it without being accused of political bias, analysts say.

"It's a political debate, not a semantic debate or a theoretical debate," says David Gergen, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and a former adviser to four US presidents of both parties. "In politics, the conventional wisdom has held for some time that if the public concludes our soldiers were in the middle of a civil war, they would think it hopeless and want to withdraw quickly."

Mr. Gergen says the administration's resistance to the term is understandable. "Calling it a civil war, in the minds of many supporters of the war, could pull the plug on all remaining support," he says.

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