Earlier this week, Washington said that it saw Kurdish initiatives to keep the substantial powers of self-rule they already have, plus assume new ones, as a constitutional issue for Iraqis to decide.
U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli, speaking on 5 January, stated Washington's position by saying, "We have always supported and will continue to support Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity. The Kurds are members of the [Iraqi] Governing Council, and have themselves expressed commitment to a unified Iraq. The structure of a future Iraqi state, including federalist elements, is a constitutional issue for Iraq to decide."
But as the week progressed, there were signs that Washington may, in fact, get very much involved in solving a problem that could seriously test the cohesiveness of post-Hussein Iraq.
Signs of growing U.S. concern came in remarks on 6 January by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who again underscored the importance of Iraq's territorial integrity and pledged that Washington will "work with the Iraqis" as they face what he called a "challenging issue."
"It was the position of the United States in the very beginning of this crisis that [Iraq] had to remain one single, integrated country. How it organizes itself, recognizing the major constituencies in the nation, remains to be determined. We will work with the Iraqis as they work their way through this challenging issue for them," Powell said.
In response to the autonomy initiatives, the head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has met twice over the past seven days with top Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq.
"The New York Times" reports that L. Paul Bremer, the head of the U.S. civilian administration in Iraq, last week told the leaders of the two main Iraqi-Kurdish factions, Jalal Talabani and Mas'ud Barzani, that they were going to have to be flexible, and to recognize the existence of a federal state of Iraq and to disband their militias.
The paper said Bremer's message came as "at least some in the [U.S.] administration [were] saying that the Kurds needed to be advised that their demands for the greatest possible autonomy had gone much too far."
But it remains unclear how Bremer's reported cautions were received. "The New York Times" quotes a Kurdish official as saying privately that the request was "totally rejected" and that "Bremer's proposal didn't even meet the minimal things that the Kurds have been fighting for all these years." The unnamed Kurdish official also said that Bremer eased his demands that the Kurds accept a lesser degree of self-rule during his second meeting with the Kurd leaders this week.
There has been no official comment on the meetings from Washington.
Kurdish representatives on the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) are pressing it to formally accord the Kurdish-controlled area substantial powers under a "transitional law" the council is due to complete drafting by the end of next month as a temporary constitution. The law is to pave the way for a sovereign Iraqi government in June.
The demands include a large degree of authority over security and taxes, possibly including the right for the region to keep its own armed forces, which currently total several tens of thousands of fighters loyal to Talabani's and Barzani's factions. That would maintain the de facto autonomy most Iraqi Kurds have had since a large part of northern Iraq fell out of Baghdad's control in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War.
Most controversially, the Kurdish proposals also call for autonomous authority over the revenues from the northern oil-producing centers of Kirkuk and Khanakin. Kirkuk, which was outside of the Kurdish-controlled region until Hussein's regime was toppled in April, is now dominated by Kurdish forces and has a Kurdish mayor.
Kurdish leaders have called the city -- which has a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs, and Turkish-speaking Turkomans -- the natural capital of an autonomous Kurdistan. But ethnic tension over Kirkuk's future status runs high and saw at least five people killed during a protest in the city last week by Arabs and Turkomans. The protesters surrounded the head office of one of the Kurdish factions as they demanded the city stay under the control of a strong central government in Baghdad.
Some Kurdish leaders have suggested that they see their best chance of achieving autonomy as being now -- while the temporary constitution is being drafted, and in hopes its provisions could become a precedent for the future permanent constitution. Under the U.S. handover timetable, the permanent constitution is due to be written next year.
Mahmud Uthman, a Kurdish member of the IGC, told Radio Free Iraq this week that he sees U.S. officials as unlikely to interfere strongly with the autonomy initiative because they are focused on security issues instead.
"The Americans are busy with their problems, with their security [in Iraq]. They are not interested in the problems of Iraq or things like federalism. They want to establish some sort of [sovereign Iraqi] political body and it is not important if it will have power over the whole country or over separate regions like Arab, Kurdish, or others. They want to establish this body, transfer the power, and get out of the country," Uthman said.
But with the new reports that Washington is getting more concerned over the tensions generated by the autonomy demands, the outcome of the crisis looks far from settled.
The Kurdish proposal is drawing increasing fire from some top leaders in Iraq as well as from neighboring states.
Current IGC President Adnan Pachachi, an Arab Sunni Muslim, said last week he is committed to a federal model for Iraq but that the Kurds must be patient.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned that too much autonomy could lead to an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq and cause regional unrest.
Both Syria and Turkey reportedly fear that Iraqi-Kurdish independence would inspire their own Kurdish minorities to seek greater freedoms.