For more than a decade after the US invasion, Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis. Some of this stems from the legacy of mistakes made by the US during its occupation of the country, in particular its failure to build a viable political system.

But the Iraqi government, led by the increasingly autocratic prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, must also share a portion of the blame; it aggravated sectarian tension for political gain. Iraq’s security forces should be bringing stability to the country, but controlled from Al-Maliki’s office, they have contributed to the country’s increased violence.

Even more pressure has been heaped on Iraq by the conflict in Syria, which has spurred the re-emergence of Al-Qaeda and emboldened Shia militias. Violence has now risen to levels not seen since 2008, the height of Iraq’s insurgency.

In December, at least 759 people were killed, 661 of them civilians, according to the UN Mission in Iraq. The death toll for 2013 reached more than 7,800 civilians and 1,050 members of the security forces. But these numbers fail to underscore the effect of violence in Iraq. It is not just the number of dead, it is the burden of the wounded and displaced people, and the corrosive effect of sectarian and ethnic polarisation.

The failure of its political establishment, which has enhanced sectarian and ethnic divisions, now means Iraq is once again bordering on civil war, just as it prepares for its third post-invasion national elections. Government relations with its biggest minorities, the Kurds and Sunnis, can barely get any worse.

Despite the power struggles, many Iraqis of all confessions continue to call for a shift in the current rhetoric towards reconciliation. But there are few signs that any new government will attempt to build a national coalition, rather than further entrench divisions. Without this, Iraq will continue down its violent path.