They have a new constitution, a new government and a new military. But faced with incessant sectarian bloodshed, Iraqis for the first time have begun openly discussing whether the only way to stop the violence is to remake the country they have just built.

Leaders of Iraq’s powerful Shiite Muslim political bloc have begun aggressively promoting a radical plan to partition the country as a way of separating the warring sects. Some Iraqis are even talking about dividing the capital, with the Tigris River as a kind of Berlin Wall.

Shiites have long advocated some sort of autonomy in the south, similar to the Kurds’ 15-year-old enclave in the north, with its own defense forces and control over oil exploration. And the new constitution does allow provinces to team up into federal regions. But the latest effort, promulgated by Cabinet ministers, clerics and columnists, marks the first time they have advocated regional partition as a way of stemming violence.

“Federalism will cut off all parts of the country that are incubating terrorism from those that are upgrading and improving,” said Khudair Khuzai, the Shiite education minister. “We will do it just like Kurdistan. We will put soldiers along the frontiers.”

The growing clamor for partition illustrates how dire the country’s security, economic and political problems have come to seem to many Iraqis: Until recently, the idea of redrawing the 8 1/2-decade-old map of Iraq was considered seditious.

Some of the advocates of partitioning the country are circumspect, arguing that federalism is only one of the tools under consideration for reducing violence.

But others push a plan by Abdelaziz Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a political party. Hakim advocates the creation of a nine-province district in the largely peaceful south, home to 60% of the country’s proven oil reserves.

Sunni leaders see nothing but greed in the new push—the Shiites, they say, are taking advantage of the escalating violence to make an oil grab.

Iraq’s oil is concentrated in the north and south; much of the Sunni-dominated west and northwest is desolate desert, devoid of oil and gas.

“Controlling these areas will create a grand fortune that they can exploit,” said Adnan Dulaimi, a leading Sunni Arab politician. “Their motive is that they are thirsty for control and power.”

Still, even nationalists who favor a united Iraq acknowledge that sectarian warfare has gotten so out of hand that even the possibility of splitting the capital along the Tigris, which roughly divides the city between a mostly Shiite east and a mostly Sunni west, is being openly discussed.

“Sunnis and Shiites are both starting to feel that dividing Baghdad will be the solution,” said Ammar Wajuih, a Sunni politician.

Critics scoff at the idea that any geographical partitioning of Sunnis and Shiites will make the country safer. Some observers warn that cutting up the country’s Arab provinces into separate religious cantons would be as cataclysmic as the partition of Pakistan and India in 1947.

Although growing numbers of Iraqis acknowledge that their country is in an undeclared civil war, a partition would “actually lead to increasing violence and sectarian displacement,” said Hussein Athab, a political scientist and former lawmaker in Basra.

Critics of partitioning note that rival Shiite militias with ties to political parties in government appear to be responsible for as much of Iraq’s violence as Sunni insurgents are, and have been known to turn their guns on one another.

“They’re always talking about reconciliation and rejecting violence, but in truth they’re not serious,” Wajuih said. “Whenever there is a security escalation or violence, they bring the issue of federalism up again.”

One Western diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, suggested that the Shiites were using the prospect of a southern ministate to gain political concessions from Sunnis—“a threat that they wouldn’t want to have to exercise” because tearing the country asunder would be so traumatic.

A U.S. Embassy spokesperson declined to comment publicly on such a volatile issue. But U.S. policymakers also have begun to warm to the idea. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, one of the Democratic Party’s leading voices on foreign policy, began openly advocating such a move this year.

“I think it’s the only way out,” says Ivan Eland, a former House Foreign Affairs Committee staffer who is now an analyst at the Independent Institute, an Oakland think tank. “Iraq is already partitioned. Kurds don’t want to be part of it. And any central government controlled by one group, the other groups are going to be afraid of being oppressed by it.”

The prospect of a decentralized Iraq drove opposition groups for decades; Shiites and Kurds were brutally suppressed under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime, and once they came to power they wanted to weaken the central government. In a referendum last year, a constitution including the option of devolution was approved despite nearly uniform Sunni opposition.

Under the constitution, any of Iraq’s 18 provinces, or a group of provinces, may hold a referendum to form a federal region. But the charter was vague on the definition of “federal.” In Kurdistan it in effect has meant grouping three provinces into an autonomous enclave that has its own military, intelligence apparatus, prime minister and oil ministry.

The Kurdish experiment has inspired many Shiite leaders, especially Hakim. Clerics loyal to him already have begun using street demonstrations as well as Friday sermons to advance to desperate and war-weary Shiite masses the idea that an autonomous southern region will stem the bloodshed and bring prosperity.

“Those afraid of federalism in the south and middle are afraid that we will get our rights back,” Shiite cleric Sadruddin Qubanchi told the faithful gathered for Friday prayers in Najaf last month.

“Why not now?” said a July 30 column in Al Adala, a Shiite daily newspaper. “We are in a race against time to establish federalism in Iraq.”

Hakim’s advisors have already begun drawing up proposals for the rights and territorial boundaries of such a region, said Haithem Hussein, one of his deputies. In one plan, the Shiite militias now considered part of Iraq’s cycle of violence could serve as a regional security force, just as the Kurdish peshmerga militias form the core of Kurdistan’s regional security forces.

“We don’t want to establish a Shiite state or a state within a state,” said Mukhlis Zamel, a Shiite lawmaker from the southern city of Nasiriya. “But we want to manage ourselves by ourselves.”

In the halls of parliament, Sunni politicians say their Shiite colleagues try to strong-arm them to go along with their plan.

“They try to convince you that federalism is the only solution, whether you like it or not,” said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, a former law professor now serving in parliament as a member of the main Sunni coalition.

Most agree that a partitioning of Iraq along the geographical lines advocated by Shiites would be an agonizing and traumatic process.

Almost all of Iraq’s major tribes include both Shiite and Sunni branches, and cross-sectarian marriages abound.

Baghdad, Diyala, northern Babil and southern Salahuddin provinces are thoroughly mixed, often patchworks of Shiite and Sunni villages. Basra in the south includes a significant Sunni minority, while Mosul in the north includes significant numbers of Shiite Arabs, Kurds and Turkmens.

But all of these complications can be worked out, said analyst Eland.

“They could work out an oil-sharing agreement,” he said. “It’s a fallacy that you have to have contiguous borders. You could have deterrence: We won’t hurt your minority if you don’t hurt ours.”

Sheik Diyadhin Fayadh, a Shiite politician, offered another solution to the sectarian patchwork stemming from a partition: “If people don’t like the system in one region,” he said, “they can go to another region.”