When Secretary of State John Kerry met with freshly minted Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Wednesday, he declared that the U.S. was "very encouraged" by al-Abadi's efforts to build a functioning Iraqi government. But al-Abadi's statements after the meeting indicate that Iraq's new government may have a different understanding about the role of the international community in protecting Iraq from the Islamic State militant group -- and experts say this perception could create problems for the administration's regional strategy in the months ahead.
While al-Abadi emphasized that he would govern inclusively to rally disaffected Sunnis against the Islamic State, meeting one of U.S. President Barack Obama's conditions for expanded U.S. involvement in Iraq, he spoke of Iraq remaining dependent on U.S.-led international support.
"Our role is to defend our country, but the international community is responsible to protect Iraq and protect Iraqis in the whole region," al-Abadi said. "What’s happening in Syria is coming across to Iraq. We cannot cross that border. It’s an international border, but there is a role for the international community, for the United Nations to do that role."
Yet neither the U.S. nor its international partners have expressed an obligation to protect Iraqis or to cross the border into Syria on their behalf. Obama said last week that his goal is to "degrade and ultimate destroy" the Islamic State. But while he noted that the group poses a huge threat to Iraqis, he spoke at greater length about the potential threat to American citizens in the Middle East and the risk that Islamic State fighters will use western passports to attack the homeland. And his administration has made clear that Iraq's "problems can only be solved with Iraq political solutions."
With al-Abadi suggesting that he sees continued international involvement as essential and almost inevitable, Iraq watchers say it's possible that he won't be as proactive in increasing Iraq's stability on his own. Ken Sofer, a Middle East analyst at the Center for American Progress, said that there is a risk of "freeriding": al-Abadi's government may avoid difficult but necessary reforms because it is certain that the international community will ward off the Islamic State, he said.
The fact that al-Abadi's government contains polarizing former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and a number of his advisers -- a decision that has prompted criticism in the Arab world -- further complicates the situation.
"Haider al-Abadi says all the right things, but, you know, Nouri al-Maliki said a lot of the right things, too, and then he did other things," said Daniel Serwer, a scholar at the Middle East Institute who formerly worked on Iraq at the United States Institute of Peace.
Serwer said that it's too early to tell whether al-Abadi will enact the real changes necessary to win the backing of Sunnis. Al-Abadi's appointment of Sunnis and Kurds to positions in his cabinet -- something al-Maliki did as well when he was in power -- will not be enough to assuage Sunnis' distrust of the government, he added.
"The question is not really about giving jobs in the government to people who happen to be Sunnis or Kurds, it's a question of the distribution of power," Serwer said. "The Kurds feel particularly strongly about this because they made deals with Maliki that he didn't fulfill ... the Sunnis feel oppressed as well and excluded from real power, and that's going to be an even harder problem to fix."
Accusations that al-Maliki's government was victimizing Sunni opponents and alienating the Kurds by denying them their share of national oil revenue played a key role in his political collapse over the summer. The Kurds recently announced that they're only joining the new government on a three-month trial basis.
Al-Abadi's government has shown its commitment to include Sunnis by creating a national guard that will be organized on a local level, Serwer said.
"Those forces will reflect the [ethnic or sectarian] composition of the population in a particular province, and they won't look like the Iraqi army, which is mostly [Shiite]," he said.
But Sofer warned that the government will still have to reform what he described as a "corrupt" Iraqi national army, publicly withdraw its support from Iranian-backed Shiite militias, and rebuild its relationship with Sunni tribes.
He outlined the message the U.S. must send to the new Iraqi government:
"One, that we're not going to be the Iraqi air force, and two, we're not going to drop bombs just for the sake of dropping bombs -- we need a partner on the ground that's actually going to do legwork."