We've heard it all before - Iraq is on the brink of disintegration. Sectarian tension and violence is spiking, al-Qaeda is running amok through the country and the Kurds are threatening to break away. The post-Saddam political architecture has brought not democracy, but a new authoritarian strongman in the form of Nouri al-Maliki. As Iraq emerges from new elections and the complex process of coalition-building is set to begin, all these claims are being recycled afresh.
But this time, there are more reasons than usual to be alarmed. During Maliki's second term in power, two clear trends have emerged that give these claims new urgency: Declining levels of trust and cooperation among the political elite, and a worsening security situation, both of which are fast approaching critical red lines. Were he to be returned to power - which at this stage seems a distinct possibility - it could provoke a major political crisis and a further escalation of violence. In a worst-case scenario, it could even spell the eventual disintegration of the country.
The first trend, a collapse of political trust and unwillingness to cooperate any further with Maliki, was on full display during a recent high-level discussion convened by the Middle East Institute in Erbil. Frustrated by a stalled reform agenda and failed negotiations on the all-important hydrocarbons law, politicians of every stripe have been further alienated by Maliki's insistence on centralising power, withholding appointments to key ministries and consolidating his personal control of an increasingly securitised state.
Frustrated by a stalled reform agenda and failed negotiations on the all-important hydrocarbons law, politicians of every stripe have been further alienated by Maliki's insistence on centralising power, withholding appointments to key ministries and consolidating his personal control of an increasingly securitised state.
Both Sunni and Kurdish leaders, while still willing to bargain with their Shia counterparts in general, no longer believe they can do business with Maliki. The result has been a decline of state legitimacy in Sunni-dominated western provinces, opening the door for Sunni tribesmen and the cross-border al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), to seize and hold territory. It has also prompted the opening moves in some high stakes brinksmanship by the Kurds, who have signed oil contracts independently of the central government and suffered painful budget cuts in retaliation.
A bolt for independence?
Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has often warned of making a bolt for independence, but is usually assumed to be bluffing because of the high political and economic costs the Kurds would pay in a region mostly opposed to the move.
But if, as seems clear, the Kurds are assuming that another term of Maliki would lead to Iraq's break-up anyway, they might calculate they have less to lose by seizing the initiative and moving sooner rather than later.
Among the Shia, Moqtada al-Sadr has warned of a popular revolt if Maliki is re-elected, and the influential clerics of Najaf are reported to be at their wits end in dealing with him. The revered Ayatollah Sistani recently broke his customary silence to warn that electoral fraud may be taking place, a thinly-veiled reference to the determination of Shia religious authorities to ensure Maliki isn't re-elected. All concerned in Iraq seem to have concluded that another four years of Maliki's authoritarian policies would fatally weaken the democratic integrity of the country.
And yet, for all that, Maliki still might win. The advantages of corrupt authoritarian incumbency, affording him total control of the security forces and privileged access to state coffers, tilt the playing field heavily to his advantage. Moreover, the rise in physical insecurity and sectarianism on his watch has seen the breakdown of previously strong crosscutting electoral alliances, splintering the political landscape and complicating the task of building a voting block that could oust him. And, in the time-honoured tradition of protection rackets, Maliki can present himself as the cure for the ills of Kurdish separatism and Sunni extremism that he himself has done so much to inflame. At the very least, the process of hammering out the next governing coalition is likely to be very long and contentious. It will guarantee a prolonged period of political uncertainty for Iraq at a moment when the crisis in neighbouring Syria demands just the opposite.
Spillover from Syria is exacerbating the second negative trend threatening Iraq, that of worsening security. Casualties have doubled in the past year and are now running at 1,000 per month, the highest seen since the waning days of the sectarian civil war in late 2007. The establishment of a secure territorial base for ISIL in Deir al-Zour, al-Raqqa and Aleppo provinces in Syria is mirrored by their expanding presence in the governorates of Anbar, Nineweh and Salah al-Din on the Iraqi side of the border.
Spillover from Syria
ISIL has not only held the major Sunni city of Fallujah for the past four months, but now has its sights set on control of oil facilities near the city of Kirkuk, the epicenter of a string of long-simmering territorial disputes between the Kurds and Baghdad. Should growing Kurdish-Arab tensions lead to clashes along this heavily armored "trigger-line", further opportunities for ISIL penetration could open up. This could help widen the already growing ethnic and sectarian fault-lines in the country that undermine its integrity.
In the end, it may be external powers - principally Iran - that have the decisive say in whether Iraq continues its dangerous descent under Maliki, or struggles back onto the path of inclusive politics. Tehran's intervention in 2010 was critical to anointing Maliki for a second term. But recent signals from inside Iran, coupled with the discontent in Najaf and the Sadr camp, suggest that they may be skittish about supporting him for a third.
From the outset in 2003, Iran has been careful to "back every horse in the race" in Shia Iraq. It therefore has options to replace Maliki if it deems his policies too risky to its core interests of stability, territorial integrity, and preventing the resurgence of a militarily powerful Iraqi neighbour.
But even with the best of intentions, it cannot be over-emphasised that the Syrian civil war shows no sign of ending in return to the status quo ante of a unitary Syrian state. The tide of Levantine political fragmentation that is spilling into Iraq could help sweep it over the political precipice it is now perched on. It is true that national identity remains resilient, and that a deliberate ethno-sectarian Balkanisation of both Syria and Iraq is a political non-starter.
But a glance at the current lines of control in Syria also makes it clear that the men with guns on the ground are currently creating something disturbingly similar to just that. While Syria is arguably beyond the point of no return, Iraq is not there yet. But the outcome of this election may determine if indeed, in the words of KRG's Barzani, "Iraq is breaking up."
Scott Field is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for International Studies, University of California, Berkeley.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.