If nothing else, Nouri al-Maliki is stubbornly consistent.

In an interview at his Baghdad office a few years ago, the Iraqi prime minister refused to acknowledge that the tension between Iraq’s Sunni and Shia citizens was still smouldering outside the protected zone he called home.

It was 2007, the country still reeling from a gruesome sectarian conflict that had claimed the lives of thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands. Bodies were regularly dumped in the streets.

Seven years later, Maliki still wears the air of a man who, despite the evidence to the contrary, knows better.

He still lives in Baghdad’s Green Zone and still speaks of Iraqi unity as if it were an innate feature of the fractured nation he rules. But so much has fundamentally changed.

In just a couple of weeks, the ISIS advance through Iraq has served to highlight everything that is wrong with Maliki’s Iraq: the disarray and corruption of the armed forces, the absence of loyalty to Baghdad, as well as his inability to foster the unity of which he often speaks.

Most importantly, ISIS’s unimpeded march south and west in Iraq — taking over large swathes of largely Sunni Muslim territory — demonstrates all the opportunities lost while Maliki’s government failed to confront reality.

Sunni Awakening

One of those opportunities was back in 2007. There was, in the midst of all the carnage, a tiny glimmer of hope that Iraq’s disgruntled Sunnis could be brought into the new Iraq’s fold.

Mideast Al Qaida Comeback

A gunman watches an Iraqi police truck burn in front of the provincial government headquarters in Fallujah, Iraq, in January. (The Associated Press)

To see evidence of it, we had to travel by U.S. helicopter over Baghdad to a place called Jurf al Sakhr, a town south of the capital where Sunni Muslims who had once been allies of al-Qaeda — and fierce fighters against U.S. forces — were now armed and fighting on the U.S. side against the militants.

It was an odd, self-serving alliance on all sides, one smoothed by arms and cold cash, but it was important because it offered the possibility that assumptions about Iraq’s disgruntled Sunni community could be broken down.

Even more significantly, that alliance created seven years ago spurned al-Qaeda’s vision for Iraq and its Sunni community, a vision that had been embraced by some Sunni Muslims as an alternative to the alienation and marginalization they felt in the new, post-Saddam Iraq.

It was dubbed the Sunni Awakening, and over time the effort began to help tamp down the violence. Crucially, in many parts of Iraq that had previously provided a haven, al-Qaeda was no longer welcome.

It must be stated that the so-called Awakening was only part of the reason that the civil conflict would eventually ebb: there was also the so-called surge that year, which saw thousands more U.S. soldiers flooding into Iraq to help patrol the streets.

The physical separation between Sunni and Shia in Baghdad and elsewhere, brought on by the civil war, also eventually helped bring a modicum of peace. Finally, some of the Shia militias that had been operating unimpeded had chosen to declare ceasefires.

Iraq

ISIS gunmen on patrol in Fallujah. (File/Associated Press)

But the Sunni Awakening directly fought extremists who had flourished in areas dominated by disgruntled Sunni Muslims.

It is revealing that ISIS is now operating in precisely those same areas.

Tellingly, ISIS is even more extreme than al-Qaeda, and the two groups fell out as a result. Yet it finds allies among the old, embittered Saddam Baathists in Iraq and ordinary Sunni Muslims alike.

Equally revealing is that in response, after years of Shia Muslims suffering bombings and killings at the hands of extremists, Iraq’s Shia militias are back after Maliki called on ordinary Iraqis to protect the capital. One of them marched openly this past weekend, armed to the teeth, on the streets of Baghdad.

Sectarian divisions

The old divisions, while never gone, have been allowed and even encouraged to resurface - on both sides. Dangerously, they are better armed, more entrenched and more disaffected than ever.

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Armed men stand guard beside people in Najaf, south of Baghdad, shouting slogans in support of the call to arms by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shi'ite Muslim cleric. Sistani urged followers to take up arms against Sunni militants. (REUTERS)

Worse, that overt display of sectarianism is being reflected in a region that is already a sectarian tinderbox. Iraq’s undoing in the mid-00s uncovered dormant fault lines in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere.

Brashly in the fore again, Iraq’s divisions threaten to drag the entire region, already sore and divided over Syria’s sectarian bloodbath, into a parallel conflict.

Iraqis are despairing that they find themselves here again.

Maliki's new plan

Behind the scenes, Maliki is apparently now trying to change course.

Mideast Iraq

Nuri al-Maliki (pictured) dropped his bid for a third term as prime minister of Iraq on Aug. 14 and pledged support for his replacement, moderate Shia Haider al-Abadi. (Hadi Mizban/Associated Press)

With the help of the U.S. — Secretary of State John Kerry landed in Baghdad today — Maliki will be negotiating to try to form a more inclusive government, which he is required to do in the coming days now that the election results have been confirmed.

Sunni Muslims, along with Kurds who are also marginalized and tired of Maliki’s government, are in a strong negotiating position. Some of them believe Maliki himself must be removed.

The trouble is that Iraq’s problems are much, much bigger than one man.

The argument, advanced even by the country’s highest Shia Muslim authority, is that those problems could be made smaller with the right person at the helm.

That’s probably done easily enough. But how do you now pull back two irregular armies intent on annihilating each other?