New York Times hops on the ‘civil war’ bandwagon

Over White House objections, The New York Times and other U.S. news outlets have adopted the term "civil war" for the fighting in Iraq, reflecting a growing consensus that sectarian violence has engulfed the country.

After NBC News’ widely publicized decision on Monday to brand the conflict a civil war, several prominent newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, pointed to their use of the phrase.

"It’s hard to argue that this war does not fit the generally accepted definition of civil war," New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller said in a statement.

The Bush administration has for months resisted the notion that Iraq is embroiled in a civil war, a position analysts say is hard to justify. Experts predict a shift in language could deepen public discontent with U.S. involvement in Iraq.

Asked at a news conference in Estonia on Tuesday what the difference was between the current bloodshed and civil war, President George W. Bush said the latest bombings were part of a 9-month-old pattern of attacks by al Qaeda militants aimed at fomenting sectarian violence by provoking retaliation.

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said the Iraqis "don’t talk of it as a civil war" because the army and police had not fractured along sectarian lines and the government continued to hold together.

The administration’s position won some support from former President Jimmy Carter, who has devoted much of his energies in recent years to resolving conflicts around the world. "I think civil war is a serious — a more serious circumstance than exists in Iraq," Carter said in a CNN interview.

U.S. officials’ reluctance to use the words "civil war" is more than a semantic difference. The phrase carries a political dimension as well because it could further weaken Americans’ support for a war that has already helped remove Bush’s Republican Party from control of Congress.

Sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shi’ites has increased dramatically this year. Multiple bombings in a Shi’ite neighborhood of Baghdad last Thursday killed more than 200 people and drew reprisal attacks in Sunni neighborhoods.

Analysts say the U.S. public will not tolerate troops being used as referees between warring Iraqi factions.

MSNBC, NBC’s cable network, on Tuesday displayed a graphic reading "Iraq: The Civil War" in its Iraq coverage. Other U.S. networks said they would continue reporting under broader terms like "War in Iraq."

The shift in coverage reflects a growing consensus among foreign-policy experts that the conflict is a civil war, said American University communications professor Chris Simpson.

"When those elites shift, the media typically follows," Simpson said. "To some extent the media do play a role in shaping that opinion, but mostly they follow it."

The Los Angeles Times said it had adopted the term in October "without public fanfare," making it the first major news outlet to use the term.

The Christian Science Monitor and McClatchy Newspapers, which include the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Sacramento Bee, are among the other newspapers that have described the bloodshed as a civil war.

The New York Times said it would use the term sparingly and not to the exclusion of other labels, as the conflict also has elements of an insurgency, an occupation, a battle against terrorism and "a scene of criminal gangsterism."

The Washington Post said it has no policy to describe the conflict.

CNN, ABC and CBS said some of their correspondents have referred to the rising sectarian violence as a civil war, or examined the debate among experts over whether the term is appropriate.

The decision not to label the conflict a civil war "does not in any way diminish the sheer volume of reporting we’re doing from there," ABC spokesman Jeffrey Schneider said. "That reporting certainly points toward civil war."

A Fox News spokeswoman said, "We have no plans to change our usage."

© Reuters 2006