Iraq is "on the cusp" of collapsing into civil war, the United Nations' chief of human rights in the country has said, after months of brutal sectarian attacks which are more viciously divisive than the violence seen five years ago that left tens of thousands dead.
The death toll in Iraq has spiked since April, with more than 2,200 people killed. Latest figures show militant attacks ramping up in markets, cafes, soccer stadiums and other civilian targets, as well as Shia mosques and religious centres.
Francesco Motta, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq's chief of human rights, has told ABC News Online the sectarian viciousness of the attacks is worse than the bloody 2006/2007 conflict which prompted the so-called "surge" of US troop levels.
"People characterised the violence in 2006, 2007, 2008 as a sectarian conflict but actually this conflict is becoming more sectarian. This is becoming really divisive on a sectarian level," he said.
"We're getting increasing reports that people are being targeted as they're leaving places of worship ... and this is really worrying because this is going to produce a counter-reaction. You're starting to see retaliation and this threatens a real sectarian division which will become irreparable."
Previous patterns of large-scale, headline-grabbing atrocities are being replaced by a constant barrage of savage murders aimed at ethnic minorities.
"For example in the last month we saw an attack on some bottle shop owners here in Baghdad - 11 of them were summarily executed at point-blank range. They happened to be Yezidis," Mr Motta said.
"Whether they were executed this way because they were running alcohol shops or because they were Yezidis, the savagery of the attack suggests it was carried out by extremists. This type of thing is becoming increasingly common."
He has said while the spike in deaths is not yet as bad as 2006/2007, when "even the government stopped counting", the levels of anger and mistrust among sections of the community, along with a protracted political stalemate and infiltration from the civil war in Syria are increasing support and radicalisation among extremist groups.
"Iraq is standing on the cusp of something that potentially could be very, very bad. This is the cross-roads we're at and where it will go is really hard to predict," he said. According to UNAMI figures, 6,700 Iraqis died in 2008.
The death toll for the first half of 2013 is 3,200, a rate on track to equal the levels of that time. Already there have been 100 deaths reported in the first few days of July. And with Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, starting next week, there could be even worse still to come.
"We always see spikes of violence when we see religious festivals. We do expect to see another spike in violence during Ramadan," Mr Motta said.
"It started out bloody already this month. I would predict that Ramadan will also be a bloody time in Iraq, unfortunately for the ordinary Iraqi citizens who don't want a return to this violence."
Widespread demonstrations have been held for months across the country, driven largely by a Sunni population which feels alienated by the Shia-dominated government. Anti-terror laws which allow indefinite imprisonment are used to discriminate against Sunnis, they claim.
In Syria, the Sunni-dominated rebels are fighting loyalist forces largely made up of Shia and backed by Shia nations in the region.
"There's a number of extremist groups in Syria who are very well armed who have been getting a lot of support from extremist groups who were already based in Iraq," Mr Motta said.
"In Syria we're seeing a lot of minority groups being increasingly targeted by extremists - the same thing is happening here."
Tensions have persisted in a swathe of territory in northern Iraq that Kurdish leaders want to incorporate into their autonomous three-province region over Baghdad's objections.
Meanwhile the national government remains locked in a political impasse, with basic services still lacking and infrastructure in disarray. Moderate leaders are being sidelined.
Mr Motta has said there is still time to avert Iraq's disintegration, but only if its leaders summon the political will to act.
"It's not inevitable that we will reach that point (of all-out civil war) but urgent steps have to be taken to address a whole range of issues in order to make sure these grievances don't eat away at the remaining stability that the country has," he said.
By Lincoln Archer