The conflict in Iraq is not marked by front lines or raging battles between warring Iraqi factions. There is no Green Line separating sectarian militias, as in Beirut in the 1970s and 1980s, nor are there clearly defined armies and commanders. But by any measure, Iraqis will tell you that their country is embroiled in what amounts to civil war.

Since the Feb. 22 bombing of the al-Askari mosque, a Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, waves of suicide bombers have struck other Shiite targets, killing hundreds of civilians. They have been followed by reprisals in the forms of assassinations and kidnappings, with hundreds of Sunni Muslims bound, gagged and shot in the head across Baghdad and surrounding towns. ~Chicago Tribune

The title above was the headline that greeted Chicagoans this morning, as the Tribune seems to have the distinction of being the first major American paper to describe the situation in Iraq unequivocally as a civil war in its news coverage. No longer are journalists simply quibbling over words at round tables on Sunday talk shows (or, more often, on NPR programs where half the contributors and most of the listeners oppose our war there anyway). If the public’s response to past foreign conflicts are any guide, the more complicated the Iraqi situation becomes and the more it becomes a question of our keeping warring factions from fighting each other the less support the war in Iraq will have at home.

Whether they believe that “those people have been killing each other for centuries,” to use a standard falsehood that the media circulated about the Balkan Wars, or not, they will have little interest in resolving someone else’s disputes, especially if they believe those disputes are more or less intractable and based in tribal and sectarian forms of identity that many Americans genuinely have trouble relating to and an intensity of a distinctly religious political beliefs and sentiments that few Westerners this side of 1914 can begin to grasp.

The American public, under normal circumstances, instinctively (and, as it happens, wisely) recoils from getting into the middle of internecine disputes that they do not understand and do not want to understand. That this civil war happens to be a direct, predictable and oft-predicted consequence of a war many of them previously supported will matter less and less as the success of the political track–practically the only thing giving the war any reasonable justification in anyone’s mind–seems less and less likely. Now that “civil war” has become a commonplace description of the conflict in Iraq, the day will come fairly soon when the bottom will drop out of the support for our war in Iraq and the administration that started it. The “responsible” establishment may continue to fight that war, but it will do so at enormous cost to its already significantly diminished credibility and the incumbent elected officials who persist in this course will probably be punished for it in the next two election cycles.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is another item from the Tribune:

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of 1,357 adults nationwide this week found 56 percent of respondents believed Iraq was “currently engaged in a civil war,” though that’s a view contested by the Bush administration and others.

“We are sinking deeper into public disillusionment and the feeling that it amounts to a kind of civil war is part of it,” said Larry Diamond, a Hoover Institution senior fellow. “If we start calling it, in our public language, a civil war, public support for our involvement there will further evaporate.”

For a more technical discussion, go here.