Probable outcomes of the Sunni insurgency that has brought Iraq to breaking point are all bleak. The fighting could spill over beyond its borders, involving as it does Sunni militants, freelance jihadists, army regulars and Shi'ite civilians answering a call to arms. Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia could get sucked in. It will be all the more dangerous if President Barack Obama, who has been circumspect under pressure, acted against his better judgment and resumed US armed involvement which had been so disastrous under his predecessor.
The upshot would be that post-Saddam Iraq, which has a Kurdish north sundered from the rest of the country, could disintegrate along sectarian lines. A West Asia shaken up by the Arab spring could then undergo a power reconfiguration defined by Sunni and Shi'ite loyalties, to which world powers will need to readjust their strategic worldview. This is not just about oil and East-West navigation routes, but also the control of organised terror and religious militancy.
The world needs to acknowledge that the retaliatory acts of persecuted Muslims in West Asia - regardless of whether they are Sunni or Shi'ite - are a continuation of internecine religious warfare that goes back more than a millennium, beginning with the Sunni and Shi'ite schism. A resolution in modern, charged circumstances is much less likely than an accommodation, under which the politicisation of Islam is downplayed, if not avoided.
This is where the efforts of the United States and like-minded mediators should be directed. There is still a chance a dissolution of borders and the creation of balkanised states can be avoided. But time is running out as authoritarian rule or outright persecution is reasserting itself, most recently in Egypt. Mr Obama is doing his part in persuading Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, to treat Sunni Iraqis more fairly by giving them a political role which they last had under Saddam Hussein. Mr Maliki's harsh treatment of the Sunnis after American troops departed in 2011 is blamed for the brutal insurrection. The US is not the only party of influence in the crisis. The Shi'ite leadership of Iran and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar in Cairo, the supreme authority in Sunni Islam, have a role to discharge in calming their followers and urging mutual respect. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani of Iran has made a welcome gesture in asking Mr Maliki to reach out to the Kurds and Sunnis to create an inclusive Iraq. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation should lend its voice. Approaches such as these can bring better outcomes than the use of force to put down what fundamentally is a breakdown in a social compact.