"President Obama has been quite clear on this," Petraeus said at a talk at the Margaret Thatcher Conference on Liberty on Wednesday. "This cannot be the United States being the air force for Shia militias or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight. It has to be a fight of all of Iraq against extremists."
Petraeus' comments not only underscore the worry of a Sunni/Shia civil war, but also the concern that the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is too corrupt to support.
According to Petraeus, any American backing should come with a caveat: "‘If there is to be support for Iraq, it has to be support for a government of Iraq. That is, a government of all the people, and that is representative of and responsive to all elements of Iraq."
Petraeus first served in Iraq during the opening invasion as the commander of the 101st Airborne Division. Later, he became the top general in Iraq and architect of the surge, which saw reduced levels of violence and increased cooperation between minority and majority factions. He later served as the head of U.S. Central Command, overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
With his years of experience, Petraeus began his comments with a bit of a history lesson.
"You cannot have 18 to 20 percent of the population feeling disenfranchised, feeling that it has no stake in the success of the country — in fact feeling that it has a stake in the failure of Iraq,"Petraeus said about the difficulties of forming a government during the first years of the Iraq war.
Petraeus' comments highlight the difficulty of the current administration in providing support to the Iraqi government as Maliki still refuses to admit any bias by the government and would rather gloss over past problems.
"I tell all the brothers there have been negative practices by members of the military, civilians and militiamen, but that is not what we should be discussing," Maliki said on Iraqi television.
However, these practices are the root of the problems coming out of Iraq and exactly why the U.S. should be cautious in offering support, according to Petraeus.
"If America is to support then it would be support of a government against extremists rather than one side of what could be a sectarian civil war," he said.