(Masked Sunni Muslim gunmen take their positions with their weapons during a patrol in Ramadi, 100 km (62 miles) west of Baghdad, January 28, 2014. Iraqi government forces battling al Qaeda-linked militants intensified air strikes and artillery fire on the Sunni city of Ramadi on Monday in a military operation that killed at least 20 ISIL militants in the eastern part of the city, Ministry of Defence said. REUTERS/Stringer )

(Masked Sunni Muslim gunmen take their positions with their weapons during a patrol in Ramadi, 100 km (62 miles) west of Baghdad, January 28, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer )

Sheikh Ali Hatem Suleiman, one of the leaders of the Sunni revolt against the Shi’ite-led government of Iraq, sat cross-legged on a couch last month, lit another Marlboro Red, and discussed the struggle with visitors from his home city of Ramadi, where the uprising began late last year.

Instead of taking delight in the rebellion’s progress, though, the 43-year-old crown prince began lamenting the fact that Iraq’s patchwork quilt of ethnicities and religions was being torn apart. “How do we guard what we still have?” he asked his visitors.

The revolutionary sheikh’s doubts may seem surprising. Over the past seven months the Sunni armed factions which Suleiman helps lead, and their allies in the far more extreme al Qaeda offshoot known as Islamic State, have captured most of the north’s largest Sunni cities. The battle against Prime Minister Noori al-Maliki in Baghdad has spread north and east and threatens to fracture Iraq altogether. In late June, Islamic State declared a new Caliphate.

Suleiman has become one of the public faces of the rebellion. But the brash figure also encapsulates the contradiction at its heart, and his story explains why Iraq will be so difficult to put back together.