Iraq is being torn apart anew by sectarian violence, increasingly fuelled by the civil war in neighbouring Syria. As of early December, the United Nations reported that more than 8,000 people had been killed in 2013, a chilling reprise of the wholesale slaughter of 2006-07 between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunnis.

Iraq’s new relentless descent into chaos this year has virtually eroded all the security gains that were made at great human cost over the previous five.

Much of the current violence is the work of hard- line Sunni jihadists of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which re- branded itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and is now emerging as the most powerful rebel force in the Syrian civil war, or indeed anywhere in the Muslim world.

These two fearsome conflicts are blending together into an expanding Sunni-Shi’ite war across the region in which the jihadists are now seizing and holding territory, a strategy that if successful, bodes ill for the Middle East.

The violence in Iraq has not reached the terrible peaks of 2006-07 when the sectarian war was at its height, triggered by Sunni attacks on Shi’ite religious shrines. Iraq expert Michael Knights says that throughout 2013, the monthly total of terrorist strikes has regularly topped 1,200. That’s still well below the 6,000 plus incidents reported monthly during the bloodiest days of 2006-07.

But the war in Syria, which has allowed Al Qaeda to greatly strengthen its power and influence, has accelerated the sectarian violence in Iraq, and whole units of jihadist fighters rotate between operations in the two countries.

Few nations have been as tormented by violence and upheaval as Iraq has over the last four decades of constant war, but now it’s going through another savage and often random bloodletting, pitting Sunni against Shi’ite in a sectarian conflict that is remorselessly consuming the Middle East. In this month’s edition of the magazine Ed Blanche reports on the growing despair in the region.