The Sunni-backed bloc needs to be brought into the government, and the U.S. shouldn't be shy about saying so.


Iran is playing a dangerous game right now in Iraq. Seven months after Iraq's inconclusive election, Tehran has emerged as the key power broker in the country, expanding its regional influence by fostering sectarianism and a government dominated by it. If we hope to prevent a serious strategic setback, American leadership is required immediately.

The election initially looked like a setback for the Iranian regime. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's anti- Iranian, secular and mostly Sunni Arab-backed party, called Iraqiya, won the most seats. Current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law Coalition came in a close second. Mr. Maliki's party has a Shiite orientation, but Iran perceived it to be moving Iraq in a more independent direction—away from pro-Iranian sectarian politics.

Instead of helping the Iraqis unify their fragile government, Washington adopted a hands-off policy for several months. There were likely two reasons for this approach: internal disagreements within the White House about the proper strategy, and the Obama administration's almost exclusive focus on carrying out its timetable for withdrawal.

Finally, in July, the administration settled on a four-pronged plan. Washington would advocate for Mr. Maliki to remain prime minister and for Mr. Allawi to head a newly empowered Political Council for National Security. In addition, it would encourage the devolution of some of the prime minister's powers to other bodies, prevent the radical Sadrists from playing a critical role in the next government, and avoid a Sunni Arab return to insurgency. These goals were solid, but the U.S. made little progress in achieving them. Meanwhile, Iran pushed an alternative deal that brought the Sadrists and Mr. Maliki together.

In the past few years, Mr. Maliki had enraged Tehran by cracking down on Iran-backed Shiite insurgents and signing the strategic cooperation agreement with the U.S. But by convincing the Sadrists and most other Shiite groups to join his camp, the Iranians have today gained leverage over Mr. Maliki. Now he's sending conflicting signals on power devolution.

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AFP/Getty Images Former Iraqi premier Ayad Allawi, left, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki

In response to this development, the Obama administration in late September abandoned its preference that Mr. Maliki remain prime minister. Instead, the White House signaled its willingness to support a broad-based government led by Mr. Maliki's Shiite rival Adel Abdel Mehdi, or even by Mr. Allawi. The U.S. also proposed that if either Mr. Maliki or Mr. Mehdi became prime minister, Mr. Allawi should become the president with expanded powers.

But the U.S didn't advance these objectives either. The Kurds insisted that one of their own, current President Jalal Talabani, remain in office. Iran prefers Mr. Talabani to Mr. Allawi, so the Kurds and Mr. Maliki agreed in principle to a power-sharing agreement.

In such a scenario, most members of Iraqiya—and most Sunni Arabs—would oppose the new government, increasing the chance that they will return to increased violence. Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, would likely respond by aiding or even arming Sunni insurgents in Iraq. Turkey, another key state in the region, would also oppose such an outcome. And with fewer troops in the country, the U.S would have a difficult time managing the fallout.

In belated reaction to this dangerous brew, President Obama got involved directly last week for the first time since the elections. He called for a power-sharing arrangement in which Mr. Maliki would remain prime minister while Mr. Allawi would become president, giving Iraqiya a symbolically important role in the new government.

Two other power-sharing ideas continue to have resonance among a number of key Iraqi players. The first is a proposal for Mr. Maliki and Mr. Allawi to alternate as prime minister and deputy, with responsibility for the security portfolio, for two years each. The rest of the cabinet would not change. Mr. Allawi and key Kurdish leaders support this option. So far, however, Mr. Maliki and the Shiite parties are resisting it strongly.

The second idea is essentially the U.S.'s original plan: Mr. Maliki would remain the prime minister while Mr. Allawi would preside over an empowered Political Council for National Security. Composed of the highest government and bloc leaders, the council would review and monitor the implementation of national policy. The council's powers would be authorized through legislation enacted at the same time that the cabinet is formed. Under this plan, Iraqiya would get the speakership of parliament, a key position.

This proposal would promote more genuine power-sharing than does President Obama's most recent plan, since the presidency, according to the Iraqi Constitution, is a largely symbolic role. This proposal would also prevent the exclusion or fragmentation of Iraqiya—a development that would disappoint the Iranians.

The Obama administration should promote one of these two options, and the president needs to continue engaging directly with Iraqi and regional leaders. The administration should also ensure that the empowerment of the Council for National Security in fact occurs. And given the pivotal role of the Kurds, the U.S. should make sure that an understanding is reached with them. The administration should be careful not to push them to accept a solution that would destabilize Kurdistan—currently the most successful region of Iraq.

Brokering such a power- sharing agreement will require significant American leadership and ingenuity. But failing to do so will be devastating for Iraqis, the region and American interests.

Mr. Khalilzad, a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the president of Gryphon Capital Partners, was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations under President George W. Bush.