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It’s Groundhog Day in Baghdad

Radical Islamists, sectarian violence, uncooperative governments. It’s looking like a repeat of some of the worst days. Will we get it right this time?

Generals, they say, are always preparing to fight the last war. The same is undoubtedly true for heads of state, at least judging by President Obama's reaction to the grim news out of Iraq this past week.

The country seems to be coming apart as militants from the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, sometimes known as ISIS, or the Islamic State of Iraq ad al-Shams) mount a brutal assault on major cities, and press on towards Baghdad.

Mosul, the second largest city, fell Tuesday, and Tikrit has changed hands more than once over the past few days. The Iraqi Army melted away like butter in the sun, despite years of training by the US military. With trillions spent, thousands of lives lost, eight years of hell, things in Iraq are worse than ever.

The word from Washington is: Let’s see what happens.

“We'll be monitoring the situation in Iraq very carefully over the next several days,” the president told reporters Friday.

Meanwhile critics of the administration are raising the alarm.

“We are facing an existential threat to the security of the United States of America,” warned perennial Obama-basher John McCain, Republican senator from Arizona.

Obama may be forgiven for taking some time to think; the memory of the Iraq War is still fresh in the national consciousness, and the thought of getting involved there again gives most Americans the heebie-jeebies.

In 2003 President George W. Bush also was operating under the cloud of the previous war in Iraq, waged when his father, George H. W. Bush, was in office. At that time Washington was criticized for not going far enough, for not removing Saddam Hussein from office.

But, as experts point out, the junior Bush’s disastrous decision to bring shock and awe to Baghdad, in search of mythical Al Qaeda operatives and equally illusory weapons of mass destruction, has led directly to where we are today. By crushing the Iraqi state and failing to erect replacement structures, the United States and its Coalition of the Willing all but ensured that the conflict would last for years to come.

The situation in Iraq is horrifically complicated, and the flood of heated rhetoric over the past few days has done little to clarify things. But most of the discussion revolves around two main questions: Who is to blame? And, what is to be done?

Who is to blame?

When it comes to Iraq, there is more than enough fault to go around. It all comes down to how far back you want to go.

But in general, here are the main culprits:

1. Barack Obama

(Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Republicans are quick to point out that Washington’s failure to secure a status of forces agreement with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2010, which led to the complete withdrawal of US troops in 2011, is the main reason Iraq is falling apart today.

Obama argues that he had no choice; Maliki refused to extend immunity to US troops, and no president would leave personnel on the ground under those conditions.

There was little appetite to stay on in Iraq.

As journalist Dexter Filkins writes in The New Yorker, “Today, many Iraqis, including some close to Maliki, say that a small force of American soldiers — working in non-combat roles — would have provided a crucial stabilizing factor that is now missing from Iraq … President Obama wanted the Americans to come home, and Maliki didn’t particularly want them to stay.”


2. Nouri al-Maliki

(Olivier Douliery/Getty Images)

Obama and his team want to lay blame at the feet of the Iraqi prime minister.

Maliki makes a good bad guy; in the eight years since he became prime minister, he has done much to destabilize his country by effectively excluding the Sunni minority from power. Bolstered by Iran, where he lived in exile for seven years during Saddam’s reign, he has cemented the authority of the Shiites and has all but made Iraq a client state of Tehran.

Indeed, numerous media reports state that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards have sent hundreds of troops to Iraq to support Maliki’s government;