President Obama and his national security team use every opportunity to argue that ultimately there is no U.S. military solution to save Iraq, even as they weigh whether to launch airstrikes in Syria.
U.S. officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of Iraq’s new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ability to form a more inclusive government that represents Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities disenfranchised by his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki.
Obama’s inclusiveness message has become a refrain in recent weeks, but experts and former Iraqi leaders say it’s past time to talk specifics and clearly lay out the goals.
In the spring of 2008, then-Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq at the time, reported to Congress that the surge of coalition and Iraq forces was mainly responsible for a major decline in al Qaeda-led killings.
But he also credited the predominantly Sunni popular movement known as the Sons of Iraq, who were fed up with al Qaeda in Iraq’s bloody tear through Anbar province and turned on their Sunni brethren and relentlessly drove them out.
Since that time, al-Maliki, a Shiite, drove Sunni leaders from key posts in the government and the military, alienating entire Sunni swaths of the country that have refused to fight ISIS, a group far more extreme and virulent then al Qaeda.
The second time around, it will be even more difficult to convince Sunnis to trust another Shiite-led government in Baghdad so reforms must be both credible and long-lasting, experts say.
“U.S. military engagement in Iraq must be conducted alongside a sophisticated strategy to win back the support of those Iraqis who still view the Iraqi government as a greater threat than [ISIS] militants,” Robert Caruso, who served in the Defense and State Departments in both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations, told the Washington Examiner.
“Courting the same communities that made the Sons of Iraq a success will be critical,” he added.
Fugitive Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi recently pushed further, saying Hussein’s Baath Party must have a significant role in the new government for it to be successful.
An al Maliki-directed court convicted Hashemi, a Sunni, of running death squads in 2012. He said the courts trumped up the charges as a way to drive him out of office, and he fled to Turkey where he has remained.
He said the U.S.-led “de-Baathification” in 2003 after the invasion and toppling of Hussein caused Iraq to lose well-trained more sectarian-oriented professionals who are badly needed and should be included in the new government.
“They're effective politically and even have armed groups on the ground, they are very active," he told Reuters, referring to the banned former ruling party.
"There is only one way to accommodate them, to invite them to sit at the roundtable and be a partner in the (revival) of the political process ... in laying down an agreeable vision for the future. They have to be a partner," he said.
Faud Suleiman, a veteran U.S. diplomat who now teaches at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, agrees. He says the anti-Baathist committee, run by onetime darling of the Bush administration Ahmed Chalabi, should be banned permanently.
During Iraq’s 2010 elections the committee began purging candidates from the Baath Party, to stamp out fear that Hussein’s party could return to power. The move fueled minority Sunni suspicions that the real motive was to permanently marginalize their influence.
“Let’s stop demonizing the Baath Party – stop chasing these people, stop equating them to Nazis,” Suleiman said.
The Obama administration has pressed al-Abadi to re-open the government, Iraq’s largest employer, to Sunnis and Kurds and give them meaningful, senior-level jobs and roles.
In order to really win over skeptical Sunnis, the Iraqi government likely will need to rewrite its Constitution to limit the powers of the central government, Kenneth Pollack, an Iraqi expert at the Brookings Institute, argued during Congressional testimony in late July.
Sunnis will refuse to go back to the status quo and will be upping the ante, he argued.
"They will now insist on decentralizing power from the center to the periphery, a redistribution of power within the federal government, and a thorough depoliticization of the Iraqi security services so that they cannot be used as a source of repression by what will inevitably be a Shi’a-dominated central government," he said.
Pollack, author of a report last summer titled "The Fall and Rise and Fall of Iraq," also predicted that Sunnis will likely demand their own semi-autonomous governing structure complete with its separate budget and military as the Kurds now have.
The Kurds also will want more, Pollack said. They'll want Baghdad to allow it to keep the Kirkuk oil fields and develop and market the oil it produces as long as they pay their own expenses in the process.
Suleiman suggested a more cohesive approach to Iraqi military and police operations, which the U.S.-led provisional government after the fall of Hussein set-up along sectarian lines with entire units made up of Sunnis, Shiites and the Kurds maintaining their own Peshmerga forces.
“I spoke with a man who was interested in applying for a job with the police,” Suleiman recalled. “He said when he saw the application and it asked him to identify which religious sect he belongs to, he was no longer interested.”
As long as al-Abadi makes these changes as quickly as possible, experts say he has a shot of beating ISIS back into Syria and preventing Iraq from breaking apart along religious and ethnic lines.
“People don’t subscribe to what ISIS stands for, and they will not support them in the long run,” Suleiman said, as long as Sunnis, Kurds and other minorities see a just and viable alternative.