When Saddam Hussein was hanged, no one in the unruly crowd shouted "Long live Iraq!" or mentioned the president of the country, Nuri al-Maliki. Instead they chanted "Moktada! Moktada! Moktada!," the name of the radical Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr.

That moment symbolizes the dismal failure of President Bush's attempts to strengthen the central government in Baghdad and reconcile Iraq's warring factions. His latest "way forward" more troops, more aid, more resolve by the Maliki government is almost certainly doomed as well, and for one simple reason.

There is no national identity in Iraq, no loyalty to a common national purpose. American soldiers are fighting and dying every day under a flag they believe in. But that's not true for their Iraqi counterparts. Like the guards at the hanging, Iraqis are devoted to their tribes, to their religious groups, to individual chieftains like Moktada. Not to their country.

That's why it's time to consider seriously an idea put forward by Sen. Joseph Biden, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Under his plan, Iraq would be divided into three self-governing regions, each dominated by a single group: Kurds in the north, Shiites in the south, and Sunnis in the middle. Baghdad would become a federal zone, the seat of a national government with limited powers over foreign affairs, border security and oil revenue.

More than 22,000 Iraqis were killed last year (according to the Iraqi Health Ministry), most of them because of their ethnic or religious identity, and if anything, the sectarian violence is getting worse. The only way to stop the carnage is to keep these blood rivals apart.

Sure, this plan has many flaws. Iranian Shiites would be tempted to manipulate any region run by their co-religionists. Turkey, home to a restless Kurdish minority, would feel threatened by a quasi-independent Kurdistan across the border. Sunni states like Saudi Arabia would resent the plight of their brethren, who once ran the country as tyrannical overlords and would now inhabit a poor region bereft of oil. Beyond that, the country is not neatly divided along sectarian lines, particularly in the bigger cities.

There are possible answers to each problem: an international conference to engage Iraq's neighbors in guaranteeing its sovereignty; an agreement to share oil wealth with the Sunnis; even an exchange of populations. But here's the harsh truth: There are no good ideas for cleaning up the mess in Iraq. Every proposal can be shot full of holes. What we're talking about now is the least bad outcome.

Even the president's supporters no longer believe that his latest scheme to unify the country will succeed. Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, Bush's first viceroy in Iraq, told the Washington Post: "You'll never find, in my lifetime, one man that all the Iraqis will coalesce around."

Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Maine Republican, said she criticized the president's plan to his face: "I said, 'Why should we expect any different result than previously,' that I didn't believe the Maliki government had demonstrated the political will or capacity or resoluteness for reconciliation, that the reason Americans are not supporting the war is because they see Iraqis fighting among themselves rather than for themselves."

Snowe's right. For democracy to work, people have to be loyal to their nation not their tribe, they have to be able to trust the winners to play fairly, use power wisely, treat minorities decently, and leave office if they lose. Today, none of those conditions are present in Iraq, so a functioning democracy on a national scale is not possible. But it might be possible on a regional scale.

In a New York Times piece, Biden pointed out that a decade ago, Bosnia was "torn apart by ethnic cleansing and facing its demise as a single country." The Dayton accords stabilized conditions by "dividing it into ethnic federations, even allowing Muslims, Croats and Serbs to retain separate armies." Today, Bosnia enjoys "relative peace" and recently disbanded its tribal militias.

Another example is Greece and Turkey, countries we know well. For hundreds of years, both harbored minorities of the other ethnic group. Constant tension finally flared into violence after World War I, but in 1923, the two nations agreed to a huge exchange of populations. It was a bitter and costly decision, but for the last 84 years the border between Greece and Turkey has largely remained calm.

If Iraqis can't live together without killing each other, let them live separately. It might well be the least bad outcome available.

Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at stevecokie@gmail.com.

Copyright 2007, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.