In Iraq's Kurdish north, the Iraqi flag no longer flies alongside the Kurdish banner on public buildings – the presi- dent of the largely autonomous Kurdish region has banned it.
And in Baghdad, Shiite politicians last week introduced legislation defining how the sectarian-riven country could eventually be divided into autonomous regions – including a powerful and oil-rich Shiite region in the south.
Following recent fighting between Iraqi government forces and the militia of Shiite powerhouse Moqtada al-Sadr, the steps suggest a further spiraling toward at least a semiautonomous confederacy, if not a complete dissolution of the country.
A small but apparently growing number of Iraq experts believe dissolution of the country is inevitable. Others say a united and nominally democratic Iraq may still be possible, but suggest other solutions – including a redrawn Iraq – would eventually make the Middle East more stable. Still others say the US should face reality and help create the new Iraq that is already splintering along sectarian and ethnic lines.
But where many specialists agree is that the Bush administration is not planning ahead sufficiently for the curveballs that continuing sectarian and religious conflict might have in store for the US in terms of Iraq's final architecture.
"Of course we should be planning, and not just for Plan B but Plans C, D, E, and F, and maybe G and H, but I see very little sign we're doing that," says Ralph Peters, a retired Army intelligence officer and Middle East specialist who consults on regional policy. "They've gone through the motions of war-gaming some alternative scenarios, but they're not serious about it, and that's because they are still convinced this [Iraq project] is going to work."
Even some Iraqis insist the recent suggestions of a gradual slide toward a divided country are being given too much weight. Some Kurdish leaders, including Iraq president Jalal Talabani, say the banishing of the black-star-studded, green, white, and red Iraqi flag is designed to pressure the government to make good on a promised replacement of a banner that is associated with Saddam Hussein. And some Shiite politicians say the legislation on regions would merely define a provision that is already contained in the new Iraqi constitution approved by referendum last year.
But Mr. Peters says that's the point: that steps being taken now are merely fulfilling the direction the Iraqi people chose with a series of votes over the past year.
"The voters did what we didn't have the courage to do, their voting divided Iraq," he says, pointing to voting that was overwhelmingly along ethnic and sectarian lines. "The question now is whether [Iraq] can continue as a loose confederation – or will it officially break up? We need to be prepared for all of that."
That may be true now, but some experts say the option of a united Iraq – which remained viable after Hussein's fall – may have been doomed by subsequent American action, including empowerment of the Shiites at the expense of the Sunni elite.
"What we're seeing now may be signs of things to come, but that wasn't so much inevitable as it is a result of our actions," says Michael Hudson, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown University in Washington.
An Iraqi confederacy with a weak Sunni enclave sandwiched between oil-rich Kurdish regions to the north and Shiite regions to the south is a "recipe for endless trouble," he says. As far back as 2002, before the Iraq war, he says the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri warned him in a conversation about the repercussions of such an outcome.
One worst-case scenario for the US – and perhaps the global economy – is that an autonomous Shiite region in the south could embolden the Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia's north, a significant petroleum region, to press for its own autonomy, or even to join with its Iraqi brethren to the north.
Worries over this kind of scenario, Peters says, caused the US to dismiss the breakup of Iraq after the war – the very thing that may be happening now, he says, though more haphazardly. "At the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom the best solution was to break up Iraq," he says, "but the Bush administration didn't pursue it because the Saudis, among others, absolutely didn't want it."
Peters has raised hackles across the Arab and Muslim worlds in recent months with a proposal for redrawing the post-colonial-era borders of the Middle East. Many experts are critical of such a top-to-bottom redo, including Georgetown's Mr. Hudson, who says it is reminiscent of a Zionist plan of the early 20th century to create many small and unthreatening Arab states. Peters says his plan would simply follow the ethnic and sectarian contours of the region, and thus over time result in greater stability.
As for Iraq, it may actually take a division into ethnic regions – and outside help to facilitate that – to save the country, some experts say. Already Sen. Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware, seconded by Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus Leslie Gelb, is calling for Iraq to be divided into Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions that would provide their own security but share oil revenue –and leave foreign policy to a central government.
Another proposal, from Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington, calls for the US to accept that its project for a "multiethnic democracy" in Iraq may no longer be viable. In its place the US should consider facilitating voluntary sectarian and ethnic relocation, he says, as a means of short-circuiting a long and potentially genocidal civil war.
Any ideas to mold Iraq may remain just that, since the period of the US dictating what happens in the country has largely passed, analysts say.
Hudson notes that it has been suggested, though certainly facetiously, that if the US is set on seeing Iraq remain united, it should switch sides in the civil conflict and champion the Sunni insurgents, since they may be the strongest force opposing Iraq's division.
Short of that, he adds, the US might be best off leaving the fight and letting the Iraqis decide what they really want. "Maybe we need to let things play out," he says. "If we're out of there, the Iraqis might be forced to start talking sense to each other – and to find out if they are irretrievably sectarian or not."