Nearly four months of peaceful protests in five Iraqi Sunni areas ended violently last Tuesday after the government's security forces stormed a protest camp in the northern town of Hawija. The incident led to a wave of attacks, and more than 215 people have been killed in clashes between government forces and Sunni militiamen.
On Friday, protesters announced they would shelve their peaceful protests altogether and form a Sunni army to defend their territory. It remains to be seen how this latest wave of violence will pan out but one thing is clear: resentment among Sunni Iraqis towards the government has built to such a level that another bloody sectarian war seems almost unavoidable.
Sunni demands are legitimate: protesters have complained against discriminatory antiterror and de-Baathification laws, imprisonment, and political and economic marginalisation by the central government. And yet the government is refusing to hear them out.
Prime minister Nouri Al Maliki has his own reasons for sidelining Sunni rivals. But the crisis over Sunni demands is compounded in part by the presence of Al Qaeda affiliates among the protesters.
Three years after Al Qaeda in Iraq was effectively wiped out, thanks to the grassroots tribal "Awakening Councils", Al Qaeda is now stronger than ever. To push them back, it is important to understand how the current government has empowered extremists and made their alliance with local communities possible.
Al Qaeda filled a power vacuum created by the mismanaged withdrawal of American troops in October 2011. The group grew in strength due to the lack of desire on the part of Sunni Iraqis to cooperate with the government in challenging Al Qaeda, a government that has continually alienated and marginalised Sunnis.
There is a deep sense of betrayal on the part of Sunnis in Iraq. They feel they were targeted twice: first by the post-war de-Baathification policies of the coalition government, which focused on Sunni elements of the former regime and excluded Shia ones. That led many Sunnis to join Al Qaeda to fight against the American and government forces. Some of those later returned to work with the government through the so-called Awakening Councils or the Sons of Iraq. But, and this is what Sunnis feel is the second betrayal, although the grass-roots forces were credited for defeating Al Qaeda between 2007 and 2010, the government failed to integrate those forces into the military and security forces.
The danger of this latest resurrection of Al Qaeda is that it is now mostly Iraqi, unlike during its peak in 2006. Between 2006 and 2010, foreign fighters made up nearly 90 per cent of Al Qaeda cadres; now, the reverse ratio is true.
Today, members of those councils are fighting side-by-side with former foes to challenge what they perceive as a sectarian government. In fact, some of those killed during last week's clashes were members of those councils, which should be a wake-up call to the Al Maliki government.
To be sure, there are regional dimensions to this crisis which should be taken into consideration, but they must not be a reason for Mr Al Maliki to shun the protesters' legitimate demands.
According to some accounts, the current crisis is fuelled by outside sponsors, particularly from individuals in the Gulf region. For a while, there has been a build up to form a Sunni counterweight to what many Iraqis perceive as attempts by Mr Al Maliki to consolidate power and form loyal military forces. Mr Al Maliki recognises this regional dimension but he would be misguided if he believes that the solution is to promote that narrative rather than deal with the issue head on and intercept any attempts to stoke sectarian tensions.
Mr Al Maliki nonetheless appears to be both paranoid and unwilling to offer meaningful reforms, which makes confrontation almost inevitable. There have been calls, including by the speaker of Iraq's House of Representatives, Osama Al Nujaifi, for the government to resign and the country to hold early elections. The use of language such as "we will burn everything" by Anbar police chief, Maj Gen Hadi Rezaij, is certainly unhelpful.
Another regional factor is the spill over of the Syrian conflict. Many Sunni Iraqis perceive the war in Syria as part of one wider regional conflict against Iran and its "agents". Iraqi Sunnis maintain that their marginalisation can be traced back to Iran, which is helping not only Mr Al Maliki's government but also the Assad regime in Syria and Hizbollah in Lebanon. On a smaller scale, there is a sense that all religious groups in the region are well-armed except for Sunnis, deliberately kept weak by outside powers.
But it is also worth noting that this unprecedented unity of Sunnis in Iraq against the government is not purely sectarian but emanates from the desperate need to coalesce in the absence of the state, pragmatically reverting to traditional forms of alliance in the face of what is seen as a sectarian government. And yet, Iraq's Sunni population has proven - by siding with the state against insurgents - that they are ready to abandon their traditional forms of alliances and pledge loyalty to the government.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has gone through a cyclical process of expansion and contraction, all depending on how much Sunnis have been included in the Iraqi political process. With a major conflict looming, there is hope that Iraq's religious, tribal and provincial leaders will calm tensions. But such hopes may be dashed against the rocks of Mr Al Maliki's policies and the current regional and local dynamics.
On Twitter: @hhassan140