A quarterly report by the U.S. Defense Department on the situation in Iraq says sectarian tension and attacks on civilians increased during the summer, in spite of progress toward building the new security forces.  The report says concern about the outbreak of civil war is increasing among both Iraqis and foreign analysts, but it says civil war can still be avoided if the current effort to reduce the violence succeeds.  VOA's Al Pessin reports from the Pentagon.

The report, required by congress, says the number of weekly attacks by all groups is up 23.5 percent, and the number of casualties among Iraqi civilians is up 51 percent.  It says much of the violence is in or near Baghdad, but it is spreading and threatens the effectiveness of the Iraqi government.

Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman says the 'dynamic' of the conflict changed during the last three months, with Al-Qaida and Saddamists becoming less prominent while sectarian violence has grown. "It's a pretty sober report this time,? said Rodman.  ?The last quarter, as you know, it's been rough and the levels of violence are up and the sectarian quality of the violence is particularly acute and disturbing."

The report says the number of attacks leveled off in July at about 24 per day, but it also says sectarian violence is spreading north from Baghdad into Diyala and Kirkuk provinces.  One of the senior military officers who worked on the report, Rear Admiral William Sullivan, says the surge of sectarian violence has made the situation in Iraq more difficult than it has ever been.

"The commanders on the ground would describe it as probably the most complex security environment that they've seen since the war began," said Sullivan.

According to the report, killings of Iraqi civilians have increased sharply, but it says most of those killings are targeted assassinations.  It also accuses Iran and Syria of fueling the sectarian strife.

But the report disputes statements by some analysts and politicians that Iraq is in the midst of a civil war.  Officials note that the new Iraqi security forces are remaining loyal to the government.  And the report says while the current conditions could lead to a civil war, that can be prevented if the cycle of violence is broken. 

That is the goal of the current security operation in Baghdad, and Admiral Sullivan says it is having some success, although he says violence spiked again last weekend and into this week. 

According to Friday's report, the sectarian militias have considerable support, with many Iraqis seeing them as protectors and providers of essential services.

One U.S. officer involved in the Baghdad security effort, Colonel Thomas Vail, said Friday he believes that is changing and the current U.S. and Iraqi operation is eroding support for the militias.

"Well it will decline, and it already has,? said Vail.  ?We have lots of tips on insurgents from the population.  We have atmospherics and metrics that show that there is a level of animosity towards the insurgents and the population is standing up for themselves and taking action to assist Iraqi security forces in this entire operation."

Colonel Vail says successes in his region of eastern Baghdad make him optimistic that a civil war will be averted.

The Pentagon report also notes progress in developing Iraq's security forces, with notable increases in both their numbers and their capabilities.  And it says the insurgents have failed in what it calls their 'primary objectives,' including derailing the political process and raising public support for their own agendas. 

But U.S. officials acknowledged on Friday that politics, security and the economy are intertwined, and they say no sector will make much progress without the others.  They say that's why they and their Iraqi counterparts have made restoring security, especially in Baghdad, the current top priority.