As sectarian violence in Iraq escalates dramatically, what is at stake for the U.S.? The Post's diplomatic correspondent Anne Gearan, senior national security correspondent Karen DeYoung, chief White House correspondent Scott Wilson, and The Fix's Chris Cillizza weigh in on ramifications in the Beltway and beyond. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

The Obama administration is engaged in a strenuous effort to persuade Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to move within a matter of days toward a more inclusive power-sharing arrangement, something Maliki has failed to do over the past eight years despite continuous U.S. pressure.

At the same time, administration officials are holding urgent conversations across the political and religious spectrum in Iraq, trying to persuade minority Sunnis and Kurds to accept Maliki’s moves, if and when he makes them.

Without some quick and public action toward unity on Maliki’s part, President Obama has said, U.S. military assistance to halt advancing forces from the Sunni extremist forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) would be pointless.

But America’s Sunni allies in the region, and many Iraqis, believe that the time is long past for Maliki to change.

Saudi Arabia called Monday for the formation of a “consensus” government, presumably without Maliki, “to assume powers and responsibilities” in Baghdad.

The Saudis and others in the region, who have long refused to deal with Maliki’s Iran-backed, Shiite-majority government, have told the administration that Maliki is incapable of change and that the country will descend into civil war unless he leaves power.

Iraq would not have its current problems, a Saudi statement said, “without the sectarian and exclusionary policies practiced in Iraq over the past years, which have threatened its security, stability and sovereignty.”

Maliki was reelected in 2010 for a second term as prime minister despite his party having won slightly fewer seats than the Iraqi National Movement, a nominally secular, Sunni-Shiite coalition. The Obama administration, concerned about a power vacuum in the restive country, had pushed for the compromise that resulted in Maliki’s return to office.

Four years later, Iraq has become more divided than ever. Senior Sunni officers have been systematically excluded from the Iraqi military, as Maliki himself has taken over the defense and interior portfolios.

In parliamentary elections this year, Maliki’s State of Law alliance won about 90 seats, the most of any party in the 368-member parliament, but he will need to form a coalition with others to keep his job for a third term.

In a telephone conversation last week with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Secretary of State John F. Kerry “noted the importance of the Iraqi government ratifying election results without delay, adhering to its constitutionally mandated time frame for forming a new government, and respecting the rights of all citizens — Sunni, Kurd, and Shia — as it fights against terrorism,” the State Department said.

Kerry telephoned Persian Gulf leaders over the weekend to hear their concerns and urge patience. Under Iraq’s constitution, Supreme Court certification of the election results sets in motion a timeline for the formation of a government.

Asked Monday whether Kerry believed Maliki should not return to office, Department spokesman Jen Psaki said, “He leaves it in the hands of the Iraqi people, so we’ll see what happens. . . .

“We believe Prime Minister Maliki and others could have done more to be more inclusive,” she said.

Arab governments in the region, which consider Iran’s Shiite government an enemy, believe Tehran is controlling Maliki and have warned the United States that if it refuses to come to Iraq’s aid, he will ask for Iranian assistance.

“Iraq will only be successful if they invest in their own political process, to be more inclusive, to not govern in a sectarian manner,” Psaki said. “That’s the way to overcome this threat, not by allowing Iran’s security forces to be part of this effort.”

That is just one factor the administration has to consider as it balances concerns over ISIS advances toward Baghdad with a belief that Washington now may have the best leverage over Maliki it will ever have.

Brett McGurk, the State Department’s point man on Iraq, has been in Baghdad since the crisis began, along with U.S. Ambassador Robert Stephen Beecroft.

Their goal has been to persuade Sunni tribes in western Iraq not to make common cause with ISIS, despite their disenchantment with Maliki. That becomes more difficult to do the longer Maliki balks at announcing significant changes.

The administration is making the same argument to northern Iraq’s Kurds, who have long sought autonomy or independence and have distanced themselves from the Baghdad government.

On Monday, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Nechirvan Barzani, traveled to Tehran for talks with Iranian officials.

“The current crisis in Iraq is the result of the meddling and collaboration of the western and regional enemies of the Iraqi nation, who are seeking to prevent the Iraqi people’s will and determination from coming into action,” said Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, according to Iran’s Fars News Agency.