Moving beyond politics into the world of serious political analysis (as Cordesman and Pollack and Byman most likely are) requires developing an objective standard for what constitutes a civil war. While I'm not an expert in intra-state conflict, it seems to me that a civil war occurs when the major political actors in a state cease participating in the legitimate political processes and instead turn to violence to pursue their interests. As I see it, this hasn't quite happened yet. The majority of the Sunnis -- both the public and the political elites -- are still trying to participate in the political reconstruction of their country. The Iraqi government exists, and Sunnis are still part of it. For now. This is not to say that the government is strong or that it will succeed or that the insurgency is doomed to fail. But the political process hasn't (yet) fallen apart. So, it's not a civil war yet.
U.S. and Iraqi government leaders are avoiding the term "civil war," although President George W. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and several generals have said Iraq was "close to," "nearing" or "in danger of" civil war.
Experts outside the administration have been less circumspect.
"Iraq's conflict is now worse than civil war," said an October report by the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank close to the Democratic Party.
"The country suffers from at least four internal conflicts -- a Shiite-Sunni civil war in the center, intra-Shiite conflicts in the south, a Sunni insurgency in the west and ethnic tensions between Arabs and Kurds in the north."
In the latest of a series of reports on Iraq, Anthony Cordesman, a widely-respected expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said this month the level and sources of violence in Iraq clearly meet a dictionary definition of civil war.
Ken Pollack and Daniel Byman of the Brookings Institution think tank, reached a similar conclusion two months earlier.
"The debate is over. By any definition, Iraq is in a state of civil war," they said.
How to officially define "civil war" has been particularly difficult for the U.S. military. The U.S. Department of Defense's Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms has no entry for civil war and the term is also not mentioned in a new counter-insurgency manual for the Army and the Marines.
"It's really a political question," said an army officer who did not want to be named.
"And where this is debated publicly, it is mostly driven by politics. War critics make the point that we (the U.S.) aren't where we thought we'd be in Iraq, no matter how you describe what's happening."
As I've written about before, it's critical that the government not collapse, and that the US not allow old hatreds and rivalrys to scuttle the process. If the Shiites and Kurds can't govern in a way that keeps the Sunnis involved and secure, there are two options: Partion the country or take the governance away from Iraqis until the situation can be stabilized. Autonomy was given to the Iraqi government far too quickly, before processes seen as legitimate by all involved parties could be put in place. It's not civil war in Iraq yet, but it's close. Democracy be damned at this point...the US must do whatever it takes to hold the country together.