WASHINGTON — Three years after President Bush declared beneath a "mission accomplished" banner that major combat had ended in Iraq, a leading Senate Democrat on Monday suggested the creation of separate, autonomous regions for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds to counter continuing ethnic and religious violence.
The White House quickly denounced the idea. Bush said in a White House appearance that Iraq faced "more tough days ahead," but had reached "a turning point" with its new, full-term government.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the senior Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, presented his plan as an alternative to the options of a rapid withdrawal or a continuing war.
The "third way" Biden proposed would give each of the major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq broad authority to run local affairs.
The central government in Baghdad would be given limited, but specific, responsibilities for border defense, foreign policy, oil production and revenues.
The plan draws on ideas used to ease the bloody conflict among Muslims, Serbs and Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s.
Regional governments -- run by Kurds in the north; Sunni Muslims in the central region, excluding Baghdad; and Shiite Muslims in the south -- "would be responsible for administering their own regions," the senator said. Baghdad, according to Biden's strategy, would be a federal zone.
Such a course would represent a sharp detour from Bush administration policy. The president and the rest of the U.S. foreign policy hierarchy have persistently pressured Iraqi leaders to establish a unified government and to resist pressures that the Bush administration fears could splinter the country and bring further instability that insurgents could exploit.
The White House's speedy rejection of the idea suggested that the plan would face steep odds. But it reflected a new effort to position Democrats between those calling for an immediate pullout from Iraq and the president's policy, which polls show is increasingly unpopular and threatens to become a factor in the November midterm elections.
Bush met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, who visited Baghdad together last week for the first top-level meetings with newly chosen government leaders.
"It's a new chapter in our partnership," the president said at a photo session in the Rose Garden that followed the Oval Office meeting. "This government is more determined than ever to succeed, and we believe we've got partners to help the Iraqi people realize their dreams."
The White House portrayed Biden's plan as one of partition. The senator rejected that description.
White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan said Iraqis would not support an arrangement leading to a weak central government.
Biden presented the plan in a speech to the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia and, in summary, in an essay co-written for the op-ed page of the New York Times with Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. Biden's office provided a transcript of his World Affairs Council remarks.
The senator's communications director, Norm Kurz, said Biden had presented the plan to other Democrats. "It is all evolving right now," he said.
In his speech to the World Affairs Council, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that presents lectures and discussions on foreign policy issues, Biden said each of the major ethnic and religious groups in Iraq would find a reason to support his proposal.
The senator said that Sunnis, dominant when Saddam Hussein ruled, were beginning to recognize that they would not regain power and feared a centralized government run by the majority Shiites.
The Shiites, he said, "know that they can dominate the government, but they can't defeat a Sunni insurrection."
He said the Kurds wanted to consolidate their autonomy in the north.
Biden also said that U.S. aid should be tied to protecting minority and women's rights, and that Bush should press other Persian Gulf states reaping windfall oil profits to make good on past promises of aid to Iraq and to offer new assistance.
In addition, he said Bush should order military commanders to prepare a plan for the withdrawal of nearly all of the 138,000 U.S. troops from Iraq by 2008, or sooner if it could be achieved "without precipitating a meltdown."
Biden said he would deploy perhaps 20,000 U.S. troops in or near Iraq to strike at insurgents, train Iraqi security forces and protect the country from its neighbors.
In Iraq, meanwhile, a meeting of the country's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and Turkmen leaders from the northern city of Kirkuk offered a renewed demonstration of the simmering divisions among Iraqis.
Yalmaz Najar, leading the Turkmen group, said after the conference that Sistani had promised to defend the rights of Shiite Turkmens fighting with Kurds for political control of oil-rich Kirkuk.
Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad, Najaf and Ramadi contributed to this report.