The escalating violence raking Baghdad and other Iraqi cities is pushing that nation's leaders, neighboring Arab countries and U.S. advisers to consider a dramatic change of direction in the conduct of the war.
Leaks from a U.S. task force headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III are contributing to the widespread sense that the Bush administration is preparing for a "course correction" in the coming months.
The options cited most frequently in Washington include the partition of Iraq into three ethnic- or faith-based regions, and a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops, with some remaining in neighboring countries to deal with major threats.
Another scenario is being discussed -- and taken seriously in Iraq -- by many of Iraq's leading political players, under which the U.S.-trained army would overthrow struggling Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and replace him with a strongman who would restore order while Washington looks the other way.
Falah Hassan al-Naqib, a Sunni politician who served as minister of the interior in the interim government led by Iyad Allawi until last year, told The Washington Times he has met repeatedly with American and Iraqi generals to discuss alternative courses of action.
"All of them have a 'Plan B,' because if the situation continues as it is, they will have to defend themselves -- not just find bodies all over," Mr. al-Naqib said this summer at his house in Baghdad.
Mayhem has continued in Baghdad despite a U.S. decision to redeploy some 8,000 U.S. troops into the capital over the summer. Officials yesterday reported the deaths of 10 American troops across the country, putting October on track to be the deadliest month in almost two years.
On Monday, The Washington Times reported that Gen. George Casey, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, was "more sober" and "more concerned" about the ability of the Iraqi security forces when he privately briefed senior military and civilian leaders in Washington last week. Defense sources said he had appeared more upbeat over the winter about the Iraqi security force's progress.
The sources said, however, Gen. Casey was not pessimistic and still thinks the U.S. will win in Iraq. Gen. Casey's spokesman said the general thinks the Iraqi security forces have made great progress and are on track to take over more counterinsurgency missions.
Others in the Bush administration have contributed to the sense that the al-Maliki government has been put on a short leash, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying on a trip to the region Oct. 6 that Iraqi leaders "don't have time for endless debates on these issues. ... They have really got to move forward."
Days before that, Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said on CNN that the Iraqi government, "in the course of the next two months, has to make progress in terms of containing sectarian violence."
Similarly, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner, Virginia Republican, told reporters after a trip to Baghdad this month that Congress will have to make "bold decisions" if the Iraqi government does not bring the sectarian killings under control.
Even Mr. Baker, whose bipartisan commission is expected to hand its recommendations to the Bush administration after the congressional elections, said on ABC's "This Week" that "I happen to think, and I think it's fair to say our commission believes, that there are alternatives between the stated alternatives ... of stay the course and cut and run."
President Bush reassured Mr. al-Maliki in a telephone call on Monday that there was no deadline hanging over his administration, but that has done little to quell the speculation.
The most talked-about scenarios for a "Plan B" include:
Phased withdrawal: Under this plan, U.S. troops would be gradually withdrawn over a period of months and a reserve force would be redeployed elsewhere in the region.
"Our troops have become the primary target of the insurgency," argued Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, who laid out a plan for an immediate withdrawal in November. "They are united against U.S. forces and we have become a catalyst for violence. ... I believe with a U.S. troop redeployment, the Iraqi security forces will be incentivized to take control."
He proposed the creation of a "quick reaction force" and an "over-the-horizon presence" of Marines in the region to deal with urgent problems such as signs that al Qaeda was gaining control of an area.
Similar arguments have been made by Richard A. Clarke, who provided national security advice to the last four presidents, and Edward N. Luttwak, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
CBS reporter David Martin recently quoted a source in the Baker commission saying the group may recommend a scheme under which 5 percent of U.S. troops are withdrawn from Iraq every two months.
Opponents of the plan -- including most Iraqis -- argue that without a strong U.S. troop presence, the country would quickly fall into a vicious civil war and terrorists would be able to establish safe havens from which to harass neighboring U.S. allies.
Partition: Under this plan, notably advocated by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, Iraq would be divided into Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish regions, each enjoying a high degree of autonomy.
A viable central government would remain responsible for border defense, foreign policy, oil production and revenues under the scheme worked out by Mr. Biden and Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
While acknowledging that decentralization would not immediately end the problem of murderous militias affiliated with the various political parties, Mr. Biden argued in a May 1 speech in Philadelphia that this was the best way to begin rolling them back. "The regions can become magnets for the militia, integrating them into local forces, and eventually into the national force."
This solution would win quick acceptance from the Kurds, who already enjoy a high degree of autonomy in their oil-rich northern region and have little interest in what happens in Baghdad.
Many Shi'ites -- who control the southern oil fields -- would also welcome the arrangement, and this month pushed through a new law opening the door to the establishment of an autonomous region in the south.
The Sunnis, stuck in the middle of the country with no oil and few other resources, could be brought along with a constitutional amendment guaranteeing them 20 percent of all present and future oil revenues, argued Mr. Biden, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"That's ... far more than they'd get otherwise, since the oil is in the north and south, not the Sunni center."
Mr. Baker, however, has already expressed skepticism about the idea, noting that there is no easy way to divide up Baghdad and other major population centers like Kirkuk, where ethnic and religious groupings are closely intermingled.
There are also fears that an autonomous Shi'ite region would quickly fall into the orbit of Iran, while the Sunni region would be ungovernable, offering a safe haven for al Qaeda and related terrorist groups to mount attacks on U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
Coup in Baghdad: While given little credence in Washington, this scenario is being widely talked about in Iraq and in neighboring countries, both on the streets and among senior political and military officials.
According to the scenario, the new U.S.-trained army, along with elements of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist-led army, would stage a coup to oust the al-Maliki government and replace it with one led by a more effective figure -- by most accounts Mr. Allawi.
One Iraqi Sunni living in Dubai, who is in close contact with Sunni generals in exile in both the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, said those generals have been discussing such a "Plan B" with secular Shi'ites and U.S. officials for months.
These officers reportedly are convinced that Miss Rice has been discussing such ideas during a series of visits to Saudi Arabia over the past eight months.
Mr. Allawi, a secular Shi'ite who led the government before the 2005 legislative elections, is known as a strong man with backing from both secular Shi'ites and Sunnis tired of the sectarian killings. The politician also is liked by U.S. intelligence agencies, which were disappointed that his party was unable to win more seats in the parliamentary elections.
"The army scenario is not a bad scenario for the United States," said Robert Killebrew, a retired Army infantry colonel and national security analyst who predicted civil war in Iraq more than a year ago. "U.S. policy issues in the Middle East and Iraq do not require a democratic Iraq, it only requires a stable and friendly Iraq," he said.
Under this scenario, the Dubai-based Sunni source said, the army would gradually bring back elements of Saddam's former army, removing a major grievance that is driving the insurgency.
"The insurgency will come under control as most of them are concerned with keeping Iraq as one country. This is the most important for them and for the surrounding Arab countries," said the former officer.
According to most coup talk, the United States would publicly condemn the move but support the new government after a decent interval.
"My preference would be that there would be a certain amount of sanctimonious hand-wringing and saying that we don't agree with the overthrow of a democratically elected government," said Mr. Killebrew. "But we will continue to support the Iraqis in their fight against the insurgency, which would be de facto support."
Rowan Scarborough contributed to this report.