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U.S., Iraqi officials take sides on civil war debate

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George W. Bush

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- On the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, officials from the war-torn nation and the United States differed on whether there is all-out civil war there.

Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi told the BBC that recent sectarian violence is a sure sign of a nation at war with itself.

"We are losing each day as an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is," he said.

Although conditions have not passed the "point of no return," he said, if that point is reached, fragile efforts to build a new government "will not only fall apart but sectarianism will spread throughout the region, and even Europe and the U.S. will not be spared the violence that results." (Watch protesters mark the anniversary -- 2:05)

In recent months, killings apparently based on the victims' religion have fueled fears of civil war. Attacks on Sunnis and Shiites have sparked reprisal killings, and after the February 22 bombing of a revered Shiite shrine, violence seemed to escalate.

Under Saddam Hussein, the minority Sunnis wielded power, often through violence against Shiites and Kurds. In the new government the Sunnis have a minority voice, and many officials think the insurgency is largely Sunni.

In the aftermath of the invasion on March 19, 2003 -- March 20 in Iraq -- most of the insurgent attacks were on coalition forces. In time, terrorists have increasingly attacked Iraqi police and army troops and also targeted civilians.

The Bush administration says Iraq is not in a civil war, but Vice President Dick Cheney said terrorists are desperate to foster one.

"What we've seen is a serious effort by them to foment civil war, but I don't think they've been successful," he told CBS' "Face the Nation."

Gen. George Casey, who oversees U.S. troops in Iraq, also denied the "civil war" label.

The situation is "a long way" from being "a broad civil war," Casey told CNN's "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer." "But I don't want to sugarcoat it either. This is a very fragile time, and there are people getting killed."

Lawmakers have also argued the point. The debate carries political significance in both nations, as Iraqi officials work to build a permanent government and President Bush's approval rating is at a record low.

In Washington, President Bush offered an optimistic vision for Iraq, while thanking U.S. troops for their service during the past three years.

"We're implementing a strategy that will lead to victory in Iraq," he said Sunday. "And a victory in Iraq will make this country more secure and will help lay the foundation of peace for generations to come."

He said he was encouraged by political progress in Iraq.

Iraqi and White House officials have said conditions are improving and the new government has a realistic shot to become a democratic Arab nation.

A former Iraqi exile who was instrumental in building the U.S. case during lead-up to the war, and who later fell out of favor with the administration amid what turned out to be false intelligence, rejected Allawi's assessment Sunday.

"There is no civil war here," Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi told CNN.

"There is some sectarian violence because of the tensions that have been built up under both the CPA [U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority] and the interim government," which was headed by Allawi, he said.

Chalabi blamed the U.S. military for exacerbating tensions through operations in Falluja and Najaf, where pitched battles took place between the U.S. forces and insurgents in late 2004.

"That frustrated the sectarian tensions, and they are reaping what they sowed. And we are dealing with the consequences of that action then."

Both Chalabi and Allawi are members of the Iraqi parliament, and their public remarks are often viewed as positioning for power in the new Cabinet.

Several lawmakers said the Bush administration must acknowledge that Iraq has reached the point of civil war. Among them were Democrats and a Republican who has long differed with the president over the war -- Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

"I think we have had a low-grade civil war going on in Iraq, certainly the last six months, maybe the last year. Our own generals have told me that privately," he told ABC's "This Week." Hagel did not name the generals.

He said the administration should not "walk away from that or ... try to hue this up with some rosy veneer."

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