But the real driver of violence in Iraq is arguably Baghdad's over-centralization of power, which came too soon and was infused with sectarian paranoia. The United States was initially wary of this danger: The formula of all-inclusive power sharing -- muhasa in Arabic -- was a cornerstone of U.S.-led policy in Iraq until 2008, and the United States also made sure that the principle of administrative decentralization was baked into the Iraqi Constitution. This policy reflected a powerful truth -- that post-Saddam Iraq was not ready for a political system with absolute winners and absolute losers.
But starting in 2008, Maliki re-centralized power, leaning on an increasingly narrow circle of Shia opponents of the previous dictatorship. And like all successful revolutionaries, this clique is paranoid about counterrevolution and has set about rebuilding a version of the authoritarian system it sought for decades to overthrow. Maliki's inner circle dominates the selection of military commanders down to brigade level, controls the federal court, and has seized control of the central bank. The executive branch is rapidly eclipsing all checks and balances that were put in place to guarantee a new autocracy did not emerge.
The root of Iraq's violence is thus not ancient hatreds between Sunni and Shia or Kurd and Arab, but between decentralizers and recentralizers -- and between those who wish to put Iraq's violent past behind them, and those determined to continually refight it. The demands that have been consistently stated by the Kurdish and Sunni Arab anti-Maliki opposition could not be clearer. First, the opposition demands devolution of fiscal authority to the Kurdistan Regional Government and the provinces, encapsulated in a revenue-sharing law that will provide a formula for the proportion of the budget allocated to the KRG and provinces. Second, it demands the implementation of the system of checks and balances on the executive branch -- particularly by empowering parliament and ensuring an independent judiciary. Third, it calls for a comprehensive truth and reconciliation process that provides justice for those damaged by Saddam's regime, but stops short of collectively punishing Sunnis.
The United States laid the foundations for these democratic traditions, and can still be a powerful voice in getting Iraq back on track. There are some encouraging signs on this front. Secretary of State John Kerry has begun engaging directly and firmly with Maliki, and puts Iraq in the top tier of challenges to be addressed. Washington has been active in bringing Iraqi and Turkish officials together to discuss their long-term energy interests, encapsulated in the prospect of a strategic pipeline corridor that could see more Iraqi oil flowing through Turkey and less through the chokepoint of the Strait of Hormuz close to Iran. Facing Sunni militancy and growing internal challenges from within his own Shiite community -- as shown by unimpressive provincial election results -- Maliki may be unusually open to taking conciliatory steps to mend his relations with the Kurds, the Sunni Arabs, and the Turks.
Violence in Iraq is likely to continue to worsen as long as the recentralization of power is taken to extremes. The Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities now need a compelling reason to stay inside the unraveling framework that is today's Iraq. The 2014 national elections offer a potential restart button for this nation-building process, but replacing Maliki cannot be the precondition for a new strategy for saving Iraq. The premier could very well win: He holds many advantages heading into the polls, including control of most key ministries, the security and intelligence apparatus, and the federal courts. The key is to ensure that whoever rules Iraq after the 2014 elections feels maximum pressure from the international community and Iraq's factions to return to a looser, freer national construct.
If Washington chooses to back Iraq's decentralizers, it will not be alone. For their own diverse reasons, almost every actor working in Iraq today -- the opposition, the Turks, even the Iranians -- would welcome a less divisive government in Baghdad. In other words, the effort stands a chance of success.
The experiment of building a new strongman in Baghdad has not yielded a more stable Iraq. Loosening the ties that bind Iraq together is a risk, but holding too tightly is the greater danger.