When Shi'ite militias loyal to anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr fought to take control of Iraq in 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki surprised the United States and other Western governments by ordering his armed forces to put them down.
After all, Mr Maliki had joined the revolutionary Shi'ite Islamist Dawa Party as a university student back in the 1970s, when it was waging its own insurgency against Iraq's government, and the country's Shi'ite majority felt empowered by his rise.
Since sweeping aside Mr Sadr's uprising six years ago, however, Mr Maliki appears to have been more true to his roots, rankling Iraq's Sunni minority.
He was accused of abandoning any notion of building consensus between the Shi'ites and Sunnis in favour of concentrating power among his mostly Shi'ite allies after the 2010 election, according to the BBC. He has also become more closely allied with Iran, where Shi'ites also dominate, over issues such as the conflict in Syria, with its Sunni majority.
By most accounts, Mr Maliki's perceived shift has fuelled the insurgency by a radical Sunni arm, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), that now threatens to tear modern Iraq apart.
That would come as nothing new for the Prime Minister, who turned 64 last Friday. His own life has hardly been a model of stability. Born in 1950 in Hilla, Iraq, his parents were middle-class.
But his grandfather Hasan Abdul Muhassin was a religious cleric, poet and politician who joined the revolt against British rule in 1920. According to the BBC, Mr Maliki's grandfather was responsible for his own strong nationalist ideals.
As the boy grew up, Iraq went from a monarchy overthrown by a coup in 1958, whose military leader was overthrown by another coup in 1963, to one taken over by the Ba'ath Party in 1968 and the rise of General Saddam Hussein.
In those turbulent times, Mr Maliki opted to study arts. While he went to a religious college founded by a leader of the underground Al Dawa Islamic party for his bachelor's degree, he earned a master's in Arabic literature from the University of Baghdad.
In 1979, the Dawa party challenged Saddam's leadership. The military dictator's response was bloody. Tens of thousands of party members and sympathisers died in an ensuing purge.