NBC News Monday branded the Iraq conflict a civil war — a decision that put it at odds with the White House and that analysts said would increase public disillusionment with the U.S. troop presence there.
NBC said the Iraqi government's inability to stop spiraling violence between rival factions fit its definition of civil war.
The Bush administration has for months declined to call the violence a civil war — although the U.S. general overseeing the Iraq operation said in August there was a risk — and a White House official Monday disputed NBC's assessment.
National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said while the situation on the ground is serious, neither President Bush nor Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki believe it is a civil war.
Democrats used NBC's decision to accuse the White House of "splitting hairs."
"The American people want their leaders in Washington to tell the truth and find a solution to the problems in Iraq," said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Stacie Paxton. "No amount of spin on the part of the Bush White House can prevent news organizations and independent observers from calling the war ... what it is: a civil war."
Several analysts said NBC's decision was important as the administration would face more pressure to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq if the U.S. public comes to view the conflict as a civil war.
The decision "certainly is a major milestone," said Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute. "That does change the terminology and is likely to change the perspective of viewers, and one suspects other media outlets will sooner or later follow suit."
Public weariness with the conflict — which has has now lasted longer than U.S. involvement in World War II — helped Democrats take control of Congress from Bush's Republican Party in Nov. 7 elections.
Americans killed 'accidentally,' Iraqis 'on purpose'
Analysts said Americans would not tolerate U.S. troops being used as referees between warring Iraqi factions.
"It almost looks as if the Americans who are getting killed are getting killed almost accidentally, while the Iraqis are getting killed on purpose," said Stephen Hess, a professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.
Sectarian violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq has increased dramatically in the past week. Multiple bombings in a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad on Thursday killed more than 200 people and drew reprisal attacks in Sunni neighborhoods.
Jordan's King Abdullah said on Sunday that civil war was looming in Iraq and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned Monday that the country was nearly in civil war.
Bush and Maliki are scheduled to meet in Jordan this week to discuss ways to stem the violence.
Experts differ on how to define a civil war and which conflicts fall into that category. While Shiites and Sunnis are not organized into formal armies, the rising level of sectarian violence has led many to conclude that a de facto civil war is under way.
"It's getting silly for the administration or anyone else to deny there's a civil war," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who said the February bombing of a Shiite shrine marked the transition from an anti-American insurgency to civil war.
Loren Thompson, a defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, said he does not believe the country has yet descended into civil war because most of the population is not involved in the violence.
But he said: "The bottom line on the American role is it will leave if it feels it has to take sides in order to continue operating in Iraq."
Gen. John Abizaid, the commander of U.S. military operations in the Middle East, told Congress in August that "the sectarian violence is probably as bad as I've seen it, in Baghdad in particular, and that if not stopped, it is possible that Iraq could move toward civil war."