Sectarian violence in Iraq is back at levels not seen since the bloody conflict of 2006/07. Here are the main factors driving the divided country's slide back to the brink of civil war.
Political stalemate leaves people alienated
The political parties, established along sectarian lines, are in the grip of a grinding deadlock, with some reports accusing the Iraqi Parliament of having passed little or no meaningful legislation in two years. This year the situation deteriorated further, with the Sunni bloc boycotting the Cabinet. Prime Minister to resolve the impasse, but little tangible progress has been seen.
On the streets, widespread demonstrations are being held in Baghdad and other major centres, including Ramadi, Samarra, Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit and Kirkuk. According to the UN Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), there is widespread anger at a lack of basic services. "People feel unprotected, insecure and excluded," .
Sunnis say they're being persecuted
Sunnis are driving the demonstrations, demanding reforms to anti-terror laws in force since the start of the US-led occupation. Sunnis say the laws are being abused by informants looking to settle scores - people rounded up in anti-terror raids can be imprisoned indefinitely awaiting charge and police rely on torture to extract confessions, said UNAMI human rights chief Francesco Motta. Some are also demanding action on pensions or reinstatements for former officials removed en masse after the fall of the former regime.
"A lot of people in the Sunni community feel these laws are being targeted against them and being used by the government to discriminate against them," Mr Motta said.
A Sunni protest in Hawijah in late April became a flashpoint when security forces stormed the demonstrators, leaving up to 300 dead.
The as saying the prevailing mood is that the chance for peaceful coexistence between rival sects has been lost.
This is being exploited by militants
Militant groups have infiltrated the demonstrations to stir sectarian tensions and foment civil war, Iraq's representative to the UN Hamid al-Bayati has said. Sectarian slogans have been shouted at rallies, language which "lays the foundation for a culture of hatred", he said.
While Shiites are the main targets and bearing the brunt of the deaths, "every ethnic and social group had been targeted by terrorists", UNAMI said.
"You've got a relegation of the moderate Sunni leaders in the west of the country ... and this is providing support to extremist groups and an increasing radicalisation of some of the groups that are operating in those areas," Mr Motta said.
Two groups aligned with al-Qaeda are active in the country - al-Qaeda in Iraq and al-Qaeda in Land of Two Rivers. While their leaders have a history of factionalism, they also regularly support each other's operations. The groups are now targeting members of the , established by US forces out of former Sunni insurgents to quell the insurgency during the worst of the 2006-2007 violence. Underground Baathist groups, such as the Naqshbandi Order, operate in the north, while the Sadr Army maintains its power base in the south.
"Basra, which has been relatively calm and quiet in the last six months, is now seeing a return to IEDs (improvised explosive decives) and suicide bombings in primarily or purely civilian locations," said Mr Motta.
Syria is fuelling sectarian tensions
The civil war in Syria, in which the Sunni-dominated rebels are fighting the Shia-backed loyalists, is also widely blamed for fuelling the rise in violence. One of the main rebel groups in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, has developed ties with al-Qaeda in Iraq. Iraq's UN rep, Mr Bayati, has said some of the demonstrations in Iraq have seen the Free Syrian Army flag flown.
Analysts with the have said Mr Maliki fears a double threat from a possible victory for the rebels against the Assad regime: it would create a neighbouring power allied with - or possibly beholden to - hostile, Sunni-majority forces in the region and would also spur a resurgence in al-Qaeda's franchise within his own country. Mr Maliki has accused neighbouring states of supporting the recent rise in violence.
UNAMI has said the deaths of Syrian soldiers inside Iraqi territory has contributed to destabilising the already-fragile security situation there.
Relations with the Kurds are strained
Meanwhile in the north of the country, a separate stalemate continues between the Iraqi government and the regional leaders of Kurdistan.
Talks are planned for next week aimed at resolving a dispute over the future of Kurds' president, Massoud Barzani. Opposition groups say he has served the maximum two terms in office, but ruling coalition parties are pushing for a new constitution which would allow him to retain power.
Revenue-sharing agreements are a source of tension, with the regional government wanting more territory rich in resources brought under its control.
This is leaving Iraq's next generation at risk
While the government points to oil production increases and lower inflation as signs the Iraqi economy is improving, many of the country's next generation of leaders are being left behind. According to the UN, youth unemployment is at 23 per cent.
"You've got a whole generation of young people who missed out on schooling and education because of the violence in the country. So many teachers and professors and medical staff fled the country or were killed during the violence," Mr Motta said. "It's when you've got marginalised young people who feel that they've got nothing to gain from the system that you have a breeding ground for radicalisation."
This is a generation "caught amidst a soaring political crisis and largely left to fend for themselves", the UN mission's Mr Kobler has said. "With their potential and passion, they are the future of Iraq."
But they must see a future for Iraq before they can help shape it.