The situation in Iraq today is perilous, particularly for Sunni Muslim Arabs. Their prospects for inclusion in Iraq’s government and fair treatment from it have been declining since 2010, when Iraqiyya, the nonsectarian coalition to which we belonged, drew more votes than any other parliamentary bloc but was denied a chance to form a government. We might not have succeeded, but letting us try would have built public trust in democracy.
Instead, Iran and the United States used their influence to insist that Nuri Kamal al-Maliki remain prime minister. A sectarian-minded Shiite Muslim with authoritarian tendencies, he also pressured Iraq’s judiciary to decide in his favor. Since then, Mr. Maliki has detained thousands of Sunnis without trial; pushed leading Sunnis out of the political arena by accusing them of terrorism; stopped paying members of the Sunni Awakening, the movement that fought Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2007; and labeled all Sunnis as terrorists.
A request by provincial councils in Salahuddin, Diyala and Nineveh to hold votes on how to reorganize as more autonomous regions — as the Constitution allows — was rejected, and for a year peaceful Sunni protests were met by violence. As Iraqi security forces killed dozens of unarmed protesters, Mr. Maliki again bent the judiciary to his will, leaving Sunnis to feel they could not receive justice.
Now the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has burst onto the stage well organized and funded: In Falluja early this year, then Mosul last month, it seized territory, claiming to defend Sunnis against Mr. Maliki’s Iranian-backed government.
The group’s ideology is a perversion of Islam and an affront to our culture. Yet the group gets local support. The Sunni tribes defeated Al Qaeda in Iraq, its predecessor, less than a decade ago. Today, they cooperate with ISIS (which now calls itself the Islamic State) — not as fanatics, but because they see it as the lesser of two evils, compared with Mr. Maliki.
Meanwhile, the government murders Sunni detainees and bombs civilian areas. The killing of Sunnis by Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the presence of Iranian military advisers on the ground deepen suspicion that Iraq’s government serves Iran, not Iraqis. This pushes more Sunnis toward ISIS, increasing the threat it poses to Iraq’s people and neighbors.
But Iraqis can change that. First, we need a new prime minister. The Shiite parties must nominate a replacement for Mr. Maliki; there are a number of capable candidates. Iraqi politicians also must agree on a new balance between central authority and regional autonomy. The formula should include arrangements satisfactory to Iraq’s Kurds, who already have considerable local power; increased decentralization for the rest of the country; and a new arrangement for managing and sharing the proceeds of Iraq’s natural resources, particularly oil. Any agreement must include amnesty for the tens of thousands of Sunnis detained without trial, the release from detention of the Sunni politician Ahmed al-Alwani, the end of the counterproductive de-Baathification program, and the repealing of the counterterrorism law, which has been used as a pretext to arrest Mr. Maliki’s Sunni rivals.
In addition, Parliament must reverse Mr. Maliki’s politicization of the security forces and establish new local forces to safeguard the population in Sunni areas, modeled after the Kurdish pesh merga. Only Sunni forces, with local support, can defeat ISIS in the areas it has seized.
The only armed forces permitted in Iraq would be those officially sanctioned by the government. ISIS would be banned as a terrorist group; so would Iranian-backed Shiite militias like Asaib al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah and the Badr Corps.
America’s support is crucial. A senior American official — someone who has worked with our politicians, tribes and reconcilable insurgent groups — should be appointed to reach out to Iraqi Sunni leaders in and outside the country. We also need assistance to reform the Iraqi security forces, in which America invested so heavily. The framework remains, but the command and control structure must be restored. Americans can also help vet Sunni recruits for the local forces.
Lastly, a regional conference should address the threat to nation-states like Iraq caused by nonstate forces like the ISIS and Shiite militias. Another concern is the hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis. The government has given help to displaced Shiites but not to Sunnis, who have gotten help from Saudi Arabia and the Kurdish regional government.
Above all, we must move quickly. ISIS keeps recruiting in Nineveh, and threatening anyone who won’t pledge loyalty. It has displaced Christians from a province where they lived peacefully with Muslims for over 1,400 years. But our diverse peoples can live together in harmony, as they have in the past, and it is imperative that Iraq’s leaders start now to build institutions to assure that.
Despite the horrors of our recent history, we can pass through this difficult period — with help from our American friends.
Rafe al-Essawi is a former finance minister and deputy prime minister of Iraq. Atheel al-Nujaifi is the governor of Nineveh, a northern Iraqi province.