AP Special Correspondent
BAGHDAD, Iraq - Deep within the Pentagon, they're trying to piece together a picture of an Iraqi civil war. What would it look like? Donald Rumsfeld asks.
Here on the streets of Baghdad, it looks like hell.
Corpses, coldly executed, are turning up by the minibus-load. Mortar shells are casually lobbed into rival neighborhoods. Car bombs are killing people wholesale, while assassins hunt them down one by one.
Is it civil war? "In Iraq it is no longer a matter of definition - 'civil war' or 'war' or 'violence' or 'terrorism.' It is all of the above," said one familiar with all of the above, Beirut scholar-politician Farid Khazen, a witness to Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war.
Phebe Marr, a historian of Iraq, hesitates to put a name to what's happening today, a chaotic mix of anti-U.S. resistance, Sunni-Shiite communal bloodshed and Islamic-extremist terrorism. "But it's civil strife," said the Washington-based Marr, "and it's getting extremely serious."
It's only a term from a dictionary, defined as a war between opposing groups of citizens of the same country. But once media headlines begin referring to the "Iraq civil war," it will mark not only an escalation of vocabulary, but of international concern.
Some aren't ready for the label. "It's not a state of civil war yet, but we're on the verge of it," said Baghdad political writer Jabir al-Jabari. "Iraq is in the first steps toward civil war," agreed Bassem al-Sheik, editor-in-chief of Baghdad's al-Dustor newspaper.
Rumsfeld said in Washington on Tuesday he doesn't believe a civil war has begun here, but intelligence analysts are "trying to look for a way to characterize what are the ingredients of a civil war, and how would you know if there was one, and what it would look like."
Specialists might tell them not to waste their time: Iraq was there long ago.
"By the standard that political scientists use, there's been a civil war going on in Iraq since sovereignty was handed over to the interim government in 2004," said Stanford University's James Fearon, who has done detailed studies of modern internal conflicts.
One threshold political scientists use is a casualty toll of 1,000 dead, "and this conflict is way over that," Fearon said. Besides the more than 2,000 U.S. dead here, at least 33,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed since 2003, says the British anti-war group Iraq Body Count, whose count, drawn from media reports, does not subdivide the deaths into categories.
American military analyst Stephen Biddle says U.S. policy-makers make a mistake if they "miss the nature of the conflict, which in Iraq is already a civil war between rival ethnic and sectarian groups." Washington should work to broker a peace by allocating power and resources - that is, oil revenues - along those same lines, said Biddle, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Marr, author of the 1985 book "The Modern History of Iraq," takes a long view and sees revolution where others see civil war.
With the 2003 U.S. invasion, she said, "we have brought about two revolutions in Iraq." One was a change of leadership, the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The second is a revolution in the nature of the Iraqi state: Will it survive, or break up into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish entities?
"We occupied the country and not only removed Saddam, but the institutions and the underpinnings of government - the Baath party and the elite that ran the country, and the military - leaving a huge political vacuum," she said.
Political scientist Khazen, reached by telephone in Beirut, said he saw striking parallels between Iraq and the devastating Lebanese civil war of a generation ago - but differences, too.
"For some people, this war in Iraq is a war against the United States," he said.
And it's a war, in its many aspects, that could get worse, all agreed. Al-Sheik, for example, worried that Iraq's security forces might disintegrate, with elements joining Sunni or Shiite sides. That would signal civil war, the Baghdad editor said.
By whatever name, things are getting worse, Baghdadis will tell you, as they bar their doors at night against the threat of Sunni or Shiite sectarian gangs, and listen to the clatter of gunfire and thud of mysterious explosions. The reverberations seem even to reach a deposed tyrant in his cell.
At his televised trial on Wednesday, before being cut off by the judge, Saddam told Iraqis that what he has heard is "bad," and he warned them against the fratricide of civil war. Otherwise, he said, "you'll live in darkness and rivers of blood for no reason."
Charles J. Hanley has reported on the Iraq crisis and war since 2002. Associated Press reporter Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.