President Obama is poised to repeat a catastrophic mistake in Iraq that President George W. Bush made in May 2003. At the time, Bush formally disbanded the Iraqi Army and banned senior members of the Iraqi Baath party — both predominantly Sunni institutions — decisions that many Sunni Iraqis concluded gave them no hope of a prominent place in a future Iraq.
Sunnis were the technocrats who populated the ministries and staffed the army — members of Iraq's experienced middle class who would happily have supported new leadership, had they been offered a serious role. Instead, they felt banished, and by the end of 2003, an insurgency had taken hold.
Despite his many atrocities, Saddam Hussein knew Iraq. In his debriefings after his capture, he repeatedly said whatever happened, it was critical to exclude from government the "turbans," as he called the theocrats who rule in Tehran and their Shiite counterparts in Iraq, as well as Sunni religious leaders. Religion was fine, he said, in its place. "We don't like to mix religion and politics," Saddam said in one session.
He also emphasized the importance of responding to the needs of Iraq's many tribes, clans and sects, balancing power among them.
Flash-forward a decade. Obama is now confronting a situation in which many secular, westward-oriented Iraqis feel excluded by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — a corrupt Shiite autocrat. Attempting to form a coalition and start his third term in office, he has compensated for his diminished support by doubling down on his base — largely Shiite tribal and political groups. He has ousted his Sunni vice president, arrested Sunni competitors on phony charges and alienated the bulk of the Sunni Arabs, roughly 20% of the population.
The radical, violent ISIS, so extreme that even Al Qaeda has criticized it, could not have defeated a 250,000-man, U.S.-armed and trained Iraqi Army and captured three major Iraqi cities and Iraq's largest oil refinery in Baiji without sympathizers and, at the very least, an alienated population. ISIS' terror and brutality have found a receptive audience, at least temporarily, among the Sunnis who otherwise have little in common with such fanatics.
Obama is now contemplating including Iran in an anti-ISIS coalition and providing military and intelligence support to Maliki's government. Both steps would be disastrous.
If it is not already too late, Obama must try to convince Sunnis they have an alternative to ISIS in a unified, federal, decentralized Iraq, as Bush did in 2007-08, when the U.S. shifted strategies and surged U.S. forces in support of the "Sunni Awakening" to offset Al Qaeda's growth in the Sunni-dominated Anbar Province.
While Sunnis back then turned on Al Qaeda and joined the U.S., they eventually felt betrayed by what they perceived as American "bait-and-switch" tactics. In 2010, Washington permitted Maliki to renege on his promises of inclusion after the national election.
Although Ayad Allawi, a strongly secular Iraqi Shiite, narrowly won the popular vote, he was unable to assemble a large enough coalition to become prime minister partly because the U.S. did little to help him. Having quietly backed Maliki for years, Obama's envoys supported him again, deluding themselves that the crisis in Iraqi politics was over.
Neither the U.S. nor the Iranians — and certainly not Maliki on his own — can defeat ISIS. At best, they may create zones or sanctuaries where Shiites rule. Only the Iraqi Sunnis can ultimately threaten ISIS. But they will only turn on their fellow Sunnis, as they did in 2007-08, if they see themselves as stakeholders in Iraq' s future.
The U.S. still has leverage in Baghdad — more than $2 billion in annual aid, and now the prospect of crucial military support. Obama should explicitly link such support to the creation of a government without Maliki that is inclusive of Sunnis and Kurds. Rather than focus on a self-defeating alliance with Tehran, he should immediately send a veteran U.S. envoy respected by Iraqi Sunnis to open a dialogue with former Sunni generals and tribal chiefs, including Baathists. Washington knows them well.
Plus, he needs to state clearly and unequivocally that neither Maliki nor Iran is part of a long-term solution. Finally, he should also stress, as he has privately assured Israel, that Iran cannot expect U.S. concessions in the ongoing nuclear talks in exchange for its help in fighting ISIS in Iraq, which, after all, serves Tehran's own national interests.
As bad as Saddam was, his replacement in a disintegrated Iraq by an Iranian-dominated Shiite south and an ISIS-led rump state in the Sunni heartland, arming and training anti-Western terrorists, is an even more disheartening prospect.
Duelfer is the former head of the CIA-led Iraq Survey Group, which debriefed Saddam Hussein, and former deputy chief of the UN weapons inspectors in the 1990s. Miller is a journalist and Fox News contributor who has covered Iraq since the early 1980s.