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Iraq: U.S. Media Starts Using 'Civil War' Label

  • Heather Maher

Iraqi soldiers checking cars as Baghdad residents go to mosques for Friday Prayers in September (epa) WASHINGTON, November 29, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- For months, U.S. news media have carefully avoided using the term “civil war” to describe the situation in Iraq.

Reports have said the country is “heading toward civil war” or that the fighting “is beginning to look like civil war,” but stopped short of actually labeling it a “civil war.”



In part, this has been a result of the White House’s fierce rejection of that characterization, even as sectarian violence in Iraq has soared. The United Nations estimates that 3,700 Iraqis were killed in October, the highest monthly toll since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

"After careful consideration, NBC News has decided...that the situation in Iraq with armed, militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war.” -- NBC news anchor Matt Lauer

Now a major U.S. national television network has announced that it will no longer avoid the politically charged phrase. On November 27, the host of the NBC News morning show announced on air that the network has decided that a “civil war” is indeed raging in Iraq.


“For months now the White House has rejected claims that the situation in Iraq has deteriorated into civil war, and for the most part, news organizations like NBC have hesitated to characterize it as such," host Matt Lauer told viewers. "But after careful consideration, NBC News has decided a change in terminology is warranted -- that the situation in Iraq with armed, militarized factions fighting for their own political agendas can now be characterized as civil war.”


A boy weeps after the bombing of a Sunni mosque in Baghdad in February (epa)

NBC’s decision has made news of its own because it goes against the Bush administration’s official line.


“The administration has been aggressive in arguing that there is not yet a civil war, and at the point at which news outlets begin to say there is a civil war, they’re adopting rhetoric that has a partisan overtone because the administration has made it partisan," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of several books on language and politics. "It’s newsworthy when a media outlet moves toward a characterization that is being contested on one side or the other of the political [scale].”


Newspapers Led The Way


So far, CNN and the other major television news networks have not announced a change of policy. But in the wake of NBC’s decision, major newspapers including “The Los Angeles Times” and “The New York Times” issued statements pointing out that they have been calling the conflict a civil war for several weeks now.


Analysts are referring to the decision as a “milestone” and a “turning point” and predicting that most news organizations will soon follow NBC's lead. Some media experts have suggested the phrase could result in increased public pressure on the White House to pull out of Iraq, as the U.S. public begins to think U.S. troops are caught in the middle of a new war that they are helpless to stop.


Changing Public Opinion


“Up to this point, the administration has argued that moving [former Iraqi President] Saddam [Hussein] out of power, whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction, has been sufficiently advantageous to Iraq and the Iraqi people that it justified the intervention," Jamieson says. "It may no longer justify the intervention if what it produced was a devastating civil war.”


The media controversy has come at a tense time in Washington: the report of the Iraq Study Commission is expected to be issued on December 6. Since last spring, a 10-member group of former public officials and experts headed by former Republican Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton has been meeting to come up with new policy proposals for Iraq.


Leaking The New Report


Several news organizations have begun reporting leaked information from the report. “The New York Times,” quoting officials who it says have seen parts of the document, says the group will urge “an aggressive regional diplomatic initiative that includes direct talks with Iran and Syria, but sets no timetables for a military withdrawal.”


“The Washington Post” reports that some of the group’s members are upset that the experts who were consulted during the nine months of study were “deliberately skewed toward a centrist course for Iraq” and that people with extreme views on either side of the war were not consulted.


That’s one reason why Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute who was one of the experts the group called on, thinks the report will not contain groundbreaking recommendations.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki meeting with Shi'ite leaders in Al-Sadr City on November 26 in a bid to quell sectarian violence (epa)

"I think given how much the obvious ideas are not working in Iraq, we need more dramatic ideas, we need more research into them," O’Hanlon says. "And I'm not convinced the study group has really generated that.”


O’Hanlon predicts that the report will play it fairly safe in its recommendations and will not challenge current U.S. policy.


“You don't want to go out there and propose a complete carving up of Iraq at a time when the president of the United States and of Iraq are saying they are adamantly against the idea unless you have the foresight to recognize we may not have that much choice," he says.


No matter what the report says, it won’t change the fact that U.S. media is now reporting on the "Iraqi civil war." Ironically, Jamieson says despite the White House’s rejection of that label, Bush may actually benefit from its use.


“Calling it a civil war may actually make it easier for the administration to move out of Iraq, because the public’s assumption is that a civil war is not necessarily something that we ought to be involved in," Jamieson says.


It only becomes a problem, she says, if the public begins asking: Would things have turned out this way if we hadn’t invaded?

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.


THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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