Why Iraq Is on the Precipice of Civil War

What's behind the country's deadliest month in five years

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Iraqi security personnel inspect the site of a bomb attack in Karrada district of Baghdad on May 30, 2013. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

These days, no one in Iraq is safe.

Last Wednesday, a bridal party was the target. On Thursday, separate attacks brought destruction upon civilians and police officers alike.

According to the UN, in May Iraq suffered its highest rate of violent deaths in five years.

This is a country standing on the edge of an existential precipice.

Amid such horrific and sustained violence, it's understandably tempting to obsess over the human side of these atrocities. After all, this is a brutality of almost incomprehensible scale (especially after years of war).

That being said, we can identify some of the factors that are feeding Iraq's present security nightmare.

The immediate threat is a renewed Sunni-Salafi insurgency.

In 2007-08, afflicted by a "surge'' of additional American forces, a relentless Special Forces campaign and suffering the fury of alienated Iraqis, Al Qa'ida in Iraq ( AQI) was gutted. Its mid-high ranks were decimated and its operational mobility severely restricted. The consequences were profoundly positive -- violence plummeted. Sadly, the peace hasn't lasted. Now, facing an Iraqi government that lacks the intelligence targeting capabilities of the U.S. government, AQI's effective successor, the Islamic State of Iraq ( ISI), is wreaking havoc. Waging a campaign of murder against Iraqi Shia, these terrorists want to exacerbate an ongoing government crackdown against Iraqi Sunnis. Their sustaining objective is unambiguous -- fostering a cauldron of chaos in which Iraqis detach into base sectarian alliances. In short, they desire a civil war.

So what's behind the ISI's empowerment?

Put simply, the ISI's reconstitution is a symptom of Iraq's deeper political dysfunction. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, (the Sunni supported) Iraqi National Movement of Iyad Allawi won a plurality of seats. But Iraq's current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, didn't accept the outcome. Following in a troubling tradition of authoritarianism, he was unwilling to give up power. Instead, Maliki promised to form a unity government with Allawi. The idea was that this co-operation would cool tensions and build trust. It hasn't happened. In fact, the opposite has occurred; we've seen renewed arguments over oil sharing, serious disagreements over regional sovereignty, and allegations of high level political harassment. For Maliki it seems, after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, the incentive for reconciliation isn't an abiding concern.

Then, in April, the crisis literally exploded. First, the Iraqi Government launched a bloody attack against a Sunni protest camp. Next, in a move that reeked of sectarian persecution, Maliki suspended the licenses of a number of media outlets, including Al Jazeera. On May 17, more than 75 Sunnis were killed in various terrorist massacres. Collectively, these actions have fed into a growing groundswell of sectarian anger. Trust is perishing and in the fear, extremists have found new roots of sympathy. With unrelenting ISI attacks, growing government crackdowns and resurgent Shia hardliners, the storm clouds of civil war are gathering.

Unfortunately as if the above weren't bad enough, Iraq's crisis is further complicated by the broader sectarian tensions that are rippling through the Middle East. In Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah is now waging an open and unrestrained war against the Sunni-dominated rebellion. In Lebanon, suspected Sunni extremists are responding in kind. In a similar vein, the ISI recently claimed responsibility for the killing of over 40 Syrian soldiers who had taken shelter in Iraq.

This mayhem carries a perverse catalyst -- as violent identity struggles increasingly dominate Iraqi society, opportunities for co-operative engagement are displaced.

But without reconciliation, Iraq's current pain offers a precursor of much worse to come.