BAGHDAD, March 5, 2006 -- As Pentagon generals offered optimistic assessments that the sectarian violence in Iraq had dissipated this weekend, other military experts told ABC News that Sunni and Shiite groups in Iraq already are engaged in a civil war, and that the Iraqi government and U.S. military had better accept that fact and adapt accordingly.
"We're in a civil war now; it's just that not everybody's joined in," said retired Army Maj. Gen. William L. Nash, a former military commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "The failure to understand that the civil war is already taking place, just not necessarily at the maximum level, means that our counter measures are inadequate and therefore dangerous to our long-term interest.
"It's our failure to understand reality that has caused us to be late throughout this experience of the last three years in Iraq," added Nash, who is an ABC News consultant.
Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told ABC News, "If you talk to U.S. intelligence officers and military people privately, they'd say we've been involved in low level civil war with very slowly increasing intensity since the transfer of power in June 2004."
Since the elections last year, Cordesman says, more radical Islamist insurgents have made "a more dedicated strike at the fault lines between Shiites and Sunnis." And they have succeeded.
In an interview on Fox News Sunday, however, U.S. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, disputed that.
"I think that the Iraqi people -- Kurds, Shia, Sunni -- walked up to the abyss, took the look in, didn't like what they saw, have pulled together, have pulled back from violence, and are working together to keep things calm and to find the right mix for their own government," Pace said.
Sectarian Violence Rages On
The sectarian violence over the weekend was lower in intensity than in the immediate aftermath of the bombing of the Askariya Mosque -- one of the holiest Shiite sites -- in Samarra on Feb. 22. But still, the sectarian violence continued.
On Saturday night, gunmen mowed down four people -- killing two of them -- at the Shiite Ahl al-Beit mosque in Kirkuk, North of Baghdad. On Sunday, at least two others were killed in a gun battle at the Sunni al-Noor mosque in the al-Jihad neighborhood of West Baghdad.
Shakir Mahmoud, a cleric at al-Noor mosque, claimed the attackers came from the Interior Ministry itself, which is controlled by Shiites and has been accused of allowing, if not permitting, Shiite militias.
"The group consisted of 10 cars, care used only by the Interior Ministry," Shakir said. "The uniforms are only worn by the Interior Ministry. They attacked the mosque."
The Interior Ministry denied the charge.
Al Qaeda at Work?
On Saturday in Doha, Qatar, the head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John Abizaid, claimed al-Qaeda was responsible for the bombing of the Askariya Mosque, saying that the blast indicated the group was changing its goal and trying to start a civil war in Iraq. He allowed that it had worked, to an extent.
"They got more of a reaction from that than they had hoped for," Abizaid told the Associated Press. "I expect we'll see another attack in the near future on another symbol. They'll find some other place that's undefended, they'll strike it and they'll hope for more sectarian violence."
Abizaid also noted that the attack had achieved its intended affect to disrupt the formation of an Iraqi government, saying, "The shrine bombing exposed a lot of sectarian fissures that have been apparent for a while, but it was the first time I've seen it move in a direction that was unhelpful to the political process."
But while Abizaid offered a fairly glowing assessment of the performance of the Iraqi military and police, others noted that the body count hovered in the hundreds, if not surpassing a thousand, and that in some cases the largely Shiite forces had created problems as well.
'Serious Lack of Realism'
Nash told ABC News, "The vast majority of the personnel in the army come from the Shiite and the Kurd population. And what we need to understand is that a political settlement -- not brokered, but insisted upon by the U.S. -- that gives equitable treatment to all factions is what we need."
Cordesman, who is also an ABC News consultant, noted that when military leaders speak publicly, "They have to spin the issue -- particularly for American and European audiences -- and there's often a rather serious lack of realism."
Whether or not this is civil war, the fighting is not yet a broad national conflict, since an overwhelming majority of the attacks are in just four out of Iraq's 18 provinces. The question is whether it will spread.
Zoe Magee and Mazin Faiq in Baghdad, and Sam Brooks in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.