By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website
US troops are more exposed as they try to tackle sectarian strife
A "helluva mess" is how the former US Secretary of State James Baker is said to have described the state of Iraq - and the search is on for the least-worst option for US policy makers.
President Bush held a tele-conference with his generals in Iraq to see what might be done militarily. On the immediate agenda is the future of Operation Together Forward, the plan to pacify Baghdad. That is now an admitted disappointment and if it fails, then mission failure looms.
It seems that Washington will now try to hold the Iraqi government more accountable -- by drawing up benchmarks and incentives.
The benchmarks would include action against militias, putting more troops onto the streets to reinforce the inadequate police force and agreeing on a political settlement. The big incentive is continued US support.
Mr Baker's bipartisan Iraq Study Group appears to be shaping up to recommend something between, as Mr Baker put it, "stay the course" and "cut and run". It will report probably in December, certainly after the mid-term elections.
Mr Baker has also said: "There is no magic bullet... it is very, very difficult."
His group's main concepts seem to be "stability first" and "redeploy and contain", as they are called.
The first would concentrate less on democracy and more on stabilisation, especially in Baghdad, and on trying to bring in nationalist (ie not al-Qaeda jihadist) insurgents into political life and even consulting Iran and Syria. New anti-guerrilla tactics might be devised.
This could tie in with thinking in Washington that there is merit in the idea of a government of "national salvation" in Iraq.
The second would be more radical. It foresees a possible major, phased withdrawal of US forces, perhaps to bases within Iraq or even to bases in the region from which they could support the Iraqi government if necessary.
Mr Baker and the administration have ruled out partition.
Iraqis themselves have meanwhile been involved in a fierce debate about dividing the country up into a looser federation.
On 11 October, there was a vote in the Iraqi parliament approving measures developing the provision in the constitution for more regional groupings like the semi-autonomous rule that the Kurds enjoy in the north.
Iraqi President Talabani: against partition
The plan was forced through by the main Shia party and strongly opposed by Sunni leaders. The Sunnis know that, without oil in their region, they would end up the poorest. They fear the growth of a powerful, oil-rich "Shiastan" in the south.
The whole thing is likely to be put off for 18 months, during which anything could happen, but the manner of its parliamentary passage in an atmosphere of chaos and anger does not augur well for the governance of Iraq.
Degrees of separation
Varying degrees of separation are suggested.
On 1 May this year, in an article in the New York Times, Democratic Senator Jo Biden and commentator Leslie Gelb suggested decentralisation.
"The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group - Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shia Arab - room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.
Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, wants Iraq to follow the example of Yugoslavia which was divided into independent states, Croatia among them.
Now an advocate for the Kurds, he wants them to have full independence. Iraq, he says, cannot be put back together again.
"Iraq is not salvageable as a unitary state," he wrote in the New York Review of Books in May 2004.
Mr Baker himself is hostile to partition or anything much like it.
He made this clear in an interview on ABC television on 8 October:
"There are no boundaries between Sunni areas and Shia areas in Iraq, how do you draw the boundaries? And the minute you say we're going to do that and make three autonomous regions, you're likely to kick off a huge civil war."
And many Iraqis oppose breaking up the country.
The country's president Jalal Talabani is a Kurd, who fought for years against Saddam Hussein.
In a recent BBC interview he was asked if partition was a possible solution. He answered: "It's very dangerous for Iraq, especially the Arab part of Iraq.
"Baghdad, Baqouba, the mixed areas, it is not so easy to implement this policy of ethnic cleansing. Nor Kirkuk or Mosul. There is no possibility of accepting such a kind of policy."