The core conflict in Iraq has changed from a battle against insurgents to an increasingly bloody fight between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, creating conditions that could lead to civil war, the Penta-gon said in a report on Friday.
The congressionally mandated report provided a sober assessment of Iraq over the past three months, saying overall attacks rose 24 percent to 792 per week and daily Iraqi casualties soared 51 percent to nearly 120.
Violence between minority Sun-nis, who controlled Iraq under former president Saddam Hussein, and the majority Shiites, who are asserting themselves after decades of oppression, now defines the conflict, it stated.
Sectarian violence is spreading north, outside of Baghdad into Diyala Province and oil-rich Kirkuk, it said.
Death squads, sometimes with "rogue elements" of US-trained Iraqi security forces, are heavily responsible for the sectarian violence, including execution-style killings, it said.
And some ordinary Iraqis now look to illegal militias to provide for their safety and sometimes for social needs and welfare, undermining Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, it said.
The 63-page report said that the Sunni Arab insurgency remained "potent and viable," although its visibility has been overshadowed by the increasing sectarian violence.
The release of this fifth in a series of quarterly Pentagon assessments comes as President George W. Bush strives to bolster sagging US public support two months before congressional elections while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney assail war critics.
"Conditions that could lead to civil war exist in Iraq. Nevertheless, the current violence is not a civil war, and movement toward civil war can be prevented," the quarterly Pentagon report to Congress said.
"Concern about civil war within the Iraqi civilian population and among some defense analysts has increased in recent months," it said.
"The security situation is currently at its most complex state since the initiation of Operation Iraq Freedom [in March 2003]," the report added.
Out of control
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the report showed speeches by Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld "are increasingly disconnected from the facts on the ground in Iraq. Even the Pentagon acknowledges Iraq is tipping into civil war."
Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy said the report "reaffirms what the American people already understand: the conditions of civil war exist, violence in Iraq is spiraling out of control and staying the course is not a viable option."
Since the last report in May, the core conflict in Iraq has changed into a struggle between Sunni and Shiite extremists vying to control key areas in Baghdad, protect sectarian enclaves, divert economic resources and impose their own political and religious agendas, the report stated.
Peter Rodman, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said, "The last quarter, as you know, has been rough, and the levels of violence are up. And the sectarian quality of the violence is particularly acute and disturbing."
The US has boosted its Iraq force to 140,000, the most since January, with the 15,000 troops in Baghdad trying to halt the slide into all-out civil war.
Asked if Iraq already was in a low-grade civil war, Rear Admiral William Sullivan, a senior strategic planner for the military's Joint Staff, said, "It's hard to say," adding there is no "universally accepted definition" for civil war.
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