The most senior member of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein’s entourage still at large has urged Sunni Muslim anti-government protesters to stand their ground until Shiite Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is toppled.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri heads Saddam’s now-banned Baath Party, whose leaders fled or went underground after the US-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew the Sunni strongman and empowered the Shiite majority.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis, some waving Saddam-era flags, have staged demonstrations in a show of anger against al-Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalizing their community and monopolizing power.
“The people of Iraq, and all its nationalist and Islamic forces, support you until the realization of your just demands for the fall of the Safavid-Persian alliance,” Douri said, addressing protesters in footage broadcast on the pan-Arab TV news channel al-Arabiya.
Douri said he was in the Iraqi province of Babil, but the authenticity or timing of the video could not be verified.
The Safavid dynasty ruled Shiite Iran — which at times also controlled parts of modern-day Iraq — from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Since al-Maliki came to office in 2006, Iraq has edged closer to its neighbor, which wields strong influence over several Iraqi Shiite parties.
In the video, Douri was surrounded by men in military uniform. He said the Baath leadership was considering launching a campaign to “justly and decisively” punish civilians and soldiers who supported what he described as Iran’s “Safavid project” for Iraq.
“It is a clear plan to destroy Iraq and annex it to Iran,” he said. “We warn those traitors, agents and spies ... who support the dangerous project ... that the national resistance will confront them.”
The influential Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a rival to al-Maliki who has voiced support for the Sunni rallies, said Douri and his followers were agents of the US and Israel, and urged the protesters to denounce him.
“If the government is not able to seriously and urgently capture [or kill] him, this will be our job, we, the soldiers of God upon Earth,” he said in a statement on his Web site.
Douri, seldom seen since 2003, was the deputy head of Iraq’s Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam, and took over as Baath Party leader after Saddam was executed in 2006.
After the 2003 invasion, he was ranked sixth on the US military’s list of 55 most wanted Iraqis and a US$10 million reward was offered for his capture. US officials accused him of organizing the insurgency that peaked in 2005 to 2007.
The conflict in neighboring Syria, where a Sunni-led insurgency is fighting to remove a leader backed by Shiite Iran, is whipping up sectarian tension across the region and is straining a precarious political balance between Iraq’s Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions.
That has raised concern about a relapse into intercommunal slaughter in Iraq just over a year after US troops withdrew.
A car bomb parked near a vegetable and fruit market in the town of Kanaan in Diyala Province killed two people on Saturday, police said, in an attack the mayor blamed on Baathists seeking to ignite sectarian strife.
At least four Shiite pilgrims were also killed by a car bomb near the Shiite holy city of Kerbala.
The protests in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland pose a new challenge to al-Maliki, who is already at odds with the autonomous Kurdish region in the north.