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NEW YORK – Some leading US media outlets are now calling the violence raging in Iraq a “civil war,” despite White House insistance that the strife has not reached that stage.

Editor and Publisher, a leading US news industry publication, described the decision to use the charged term as a “turning point.”

“Apparently the utter chaos and carnage of the past week has finally convinced some to use ‘civil war’ without apology,” the magazine said in its online edition late Monday.

NBC News became the latest news organization to use the term, saying the violence between Shiite and Sunni Muslims combined with the government’s inability to quell the strife fit the definition of civil war.

Matt Lauer, the presenter of NBC’s “Today” morning show, said the network had thought carefully whether civil war was an appropriate phrase for the violence plaguing Iraq.

“We should mention we didn’t wake up on a Monday morning and say,’Let’s call this a civil war,’” Lauer said. “This took careful deliberation. We consulted with a lot of people.”

Lauer and retired US general Barry McCaffrey, an NBC News military analyst, said a civil war opposes at least two sides using violence toward political ends in a country whose government cannot stop the conflict.

Newsweek International editor Fareed Zakaria wrote that “there can be no more doubt that Iraq is in a civil war, in which leaders of both its main communities, Sunnis and Shiites, are fomenting violence.”

A fresh outbreak of violence left dozens dead in Iraq Monday, four days after more than 200 people were killed in bombings in Baghdad’s Shiite district of Sadr City.

The New York Times decided to use the phrase “civil war” after previously saying Iraq was “on the brink” of civil war, while the Los Angeles Times no longer uses quotation marks for the term.

“In the United States, the debate over the term rages because many politicians, especially those who support the war, believe there would be domestic political implications to declaring it a civil war,” the influential daily said Sunday.

“They fear that an acknowledgement by the White House and its allies would be seen as an admission of a failure of president Bush’s Iraq policy,” it said.

But New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said Monday the daily would use the term judiciously.

“We expect to use the phrase sparingly and carefully, not to the exclusion of other formulations,” Keller said in a statement.

The White House has repeatedly rejected the term civil war to define the violence in Iraq.

“We’re clearly in a new phase, characterized by this increasing sectarian violence,” said National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, in Estonia on Tuesday with US President George W. Bush, who is on the first stop of a European and Middle Eastern tour.

“That requires us, obviously, to adapt to that new phase,” he said, without going into detail.

Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki are scheduled to discuss Iraq’s security situation when they meet in Amman on Wednesday and Thursday.

White House spokesman Tony Snow used different words when describing the situation.

“What you do have is sectarian violence that seems to be less aimed at gaining full control over an area than expressing differences, and also trying to destabilize a democracy — which is different than a civil war, where two sides are clashing for territory and supremacy,” he said Monday.

UN chief Kofi Annan, for his part, said that Iraq was “almost” in a state of civil war or would soon be if drastic steps are not taken to halt the spiral of deadly sectarian violence.

Robert Thompson, a television and popular culture expert, saw in NBC’s decision to call the conflict a civil war a sign that the US media had turned a corner since the lead up to the March 2003 invasion, when they were seen as following the official line in their coverage.

“I think the job that especially television news did leading up to the war was certainly not their finest hour,” Thompson said.

“This is one more step in that direction of beginning to reclaim how they’re going to define and frame these stories as opposed to having them defined and framed for them by press conferences and the like,” he said.

Other US news outlets remain undecided. The Washington Post describes the Iraq conflict as “sectarian strife,” the McClatchy newspaper chain uses the phrase “sectarian violence,” and The Christian Science Monitor uses the term a “deepening civil war,” according to Editor and Publisher.