An intensifying revolt in a Sunni Arab province of Iraq sparked by the Shiite-led government’s dispersal of a year-old protest leaves the country at the crossroads between reconciliation and civil war, analysts say.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki must decide in the coming days whether to offer a real share of power to the disenchanted Sunni minority, or press on with allegedly sectarian policies and often heavy-handed security tactics that have fuelled its alienation.
"The coming days will determine the fate of Iraq," said Ihsan al-Shammari, a political science professor at Baghdad University.
"The country stands at a crossroads -- reconciliation as a democratic state, or splitting in total chaos and civil war, leading to the division" of the country, Shammari said.
There will either be "a democratic Iraq in which everyone is equal," or "we move towards the abyss."
Discontent among Sunnis had been mounting for years, fanned by anger over their perceived exclusion from power in Baghdad and targeting by security forces.
But a decision by Maliki to break up the year-old protest camp outside Anbar provincial capital Ramadi on December 30 sparked unrest in the province's main cities.
Al-Qaeda-linked militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took advantage of the situation to seize control of the city of Fallujah -- just 60 kilometres (37 miles) from the Iraqi capital -- as well as parts of Ramadi.
"The most active and important Al-Qaeda cells are now close to Baghdad, and this happened due to a miscalculation by the government that is dragging Iraq towards the unknown," said Issam al-Faili, a political science professor at Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad.
Faili warned of an "increase in crises and of larger and more dangerous social divisions" in the country.
Due to "continual political crises," the government was unable to see "the coming tsunami, the tsunami of ISIL," Faili said.
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Iraqi officials have blamed much of the recent violence in Anbar on ISIL, although anti-government tribesmen have also been involved in the fighting.
The Al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq fell from the height of its influence in the years after the invasion, suffering defeats by US forces, especially after Sunni tribesmen joined them from late 2006 in a process that became known as the "Awakening."
But its latest incarnation, ISIL, has made a striking comeback, bolstered by newfound areas to operate in neighbouring Syria, where it has become a major player in the nearly three-year-old civil war.
"ISIL has been able to leverage its networks and capabilities in Iraq to become a strong presence in Syria, and has used its presence in Syria to leverage its position in Iraq," said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Centre for Middle East Policy.
Iraq in 2008 emerged from years of brutal sectarian killings largely because the government and the US military, then still on the ground, engaged Sunni tribes who turned against Al-Qaeda militants.
Analysts say Maliki's government needs to do the same again now to bring Iraq back from the brink.
The minority community dominated the country from its creation in the aftermath of World War I to the US-led invasion of 2003, and its sense of disempowerment was a driving force behind the insurgency that followed the invasion.
It also fuelled the discontent that helped propel violence last year to levels not seen since 2008.
Sunnis in government were also angered by Maliki's order to clear the Ramadi protest camp -- 44 members of parliament tendered their resignations the same day.
It is up to "the authorities to focus on the moderate Sunni Arab parties to attract them to government" and give them a major role at the federal level, Shammari said.
"Sunni Arabs are the ones who will determine the fate of Iraq."