The current political crisis in Iraq appears to be rapidly escalating, threatening to take the country back to the dark days of sectarian strife.
Sunni protesters have taken to the streets for the past few months to demand an end to what they believe are targeted policies against Sunni Iraqis. But the peaceful protests had an abrupt twist last week when fighting broke out in the town of Hawija, in the north, after security forces stormed a protest encampment. The incident led to a wave of violence that has left more than 215 people dead - mostly civilians, but among them Iraqi security personnel and Sunni fighters.
This latest wave of violence bodes ill for the country's future, as it entrenches an ongoing political crisis. The violence is likely to escalate if the country's national and religious leaders do not work together.
The prime minister Nouri Al Maliki has suggested the protests are a foreign-backed conspiracy. But while some elements within the protest movement have evidently extremist agendas and links to Al Qaeda, Mr Al Maliki must work to avoid empowering these elements by failing to respond to legitimate demands. Downplaying the grievances of Iraqis in provinces that bore the brunt of the misguided de-Baathification policies and where the protest movement started, including Anbar, Salaheddine and Diwaniyah, will only deepen the crisis.
Mr Al Maliki's detractors are not exclusively Sunni - they include Shia and Kurdish forces, who have voiced their opposition to the premier's policies and his tendency to marginalise other forces. In May last year, political leaders met in Erbil, the Kurdish provincial capital in northern Iraq, to discuss what they described as Mr Al Maliki's attempts to consolidate power. The meeting - which included the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, former prime minister Iyad Allawi, and Muqtada al-Sadr, an influential Shia cleric - indicated that Mr Al Maliki had alienated major political groupings. He has nonetheless failed to address those concerns raised.
Still, the situation can be contained if Mr Al Maliki agrees to work with these alienated groups to weather this storm. It is important that he works towards a national consensus with other political movements, as well as moderate religious leaders - instead of allowing extremists to lead the country into another spiral of violence.