Calling the situation "extremely dangerous," Kofi Annan said that the international community must help the country to rebuild because he is uncertain Iraq can accomplish it on its own.
"Given the level of violence, the level of killing and bitterness and the way that forces are arranged against each other, a few years ago, when we had the strife in Lebanon and other places, we called that a civil war; this is much worse," Annan said.
Last week, when asked by reporters if Iraq was in civil war, Annan — whose second five-year term as secretary-general ends Dec. 31 — said "almost."
"I think given the developments on the ground, unless something is done drastically and urgently to arrest the deteriorating situation, we could be there. In fact we are almost there," he said last week.
President Bush, and members of his cabinet, have thus far refused to label the strife in Iraq as a civil war, saying instead that the sectarian violence is being driven by an al Qaeda plot to foment religious hatred.
During the interview with the BBC world service, Annan agreed when it was suggested that some Iraqis believe life is worse now than it was under Saddam Hussein's regime.
"I think they are right in the sense of the average Iraqi's life," Annan said. "If I were an average Iraqi obviously I would make the same comparison, that they had a dictator who was brutal but they had their streets, they could go out, their kids could go to school and come back home without a mother or father worrying, 'Am I going to see my child again?'
"And the Iraqi government has not been able to bring the violence under control. The society needs security and a secure environment for it to get on — without security not much can be done — not recovery or reconstruction."
In Baghdad, President Jalal Talabani on Sunday rejected Annan's suggestion last week that an international conference be held to address Iraq's violence, echoing sentiments expressed by other leading politicians.
Talabani, a Kurd, holds a largely ceremonial post, But his comments echoed those voiced by other politicians, including a leader from Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, which is the dominant force in the U.S.-backed government.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari questioned the aim of such a conference, saying it would only be welcome if it supported current efforts to solve Iraq's security problems and assist the government.
Also denouncing the idea of an international conference on the future of Iraq is, one of Iraq's top Shiite politicians.
Al-Hakim meets Monday with President Bush in Washington. CBS News foreign affairs analyst Pamela Falk says al-Hakim is likely, nonetheless, to support the idea of talks with Iran as part of the effort to stop the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq.