Large, noisy demonstrations against the Iraqi government flared for the third time in less than a week on Wednesday in western Anbar Province, raising the prospect of a fresh bout of unrest in a onetime al-Qaeda stronghold on Syria’s doorstep.
The rallies have echoes of the Arab Spring. Protesters chanted: “the people want the downfall of the regime,” a slogan heard across the region and fulfilled in Tunisia and Egypt. Other rally cries blasted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government as illegitimate and warned that protesters “will cut off any hand that touches us.”
Protesters turned out on Wednesday near the provincial capital, Ramadi, 115km west of Baghdad.
Demonstrators blocked the main highway linking Baghdad with Jordan and Syria, as they did at another protest on Sunday.
Wednesday’s protesters held banners demanding that Sunni rights be respected and calling for the release of Sunni prisoners in Iraqi jails.
The demonstrations follow the arrest last week of 10 bodyguards assigned to Iraqi Minister of Finance Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from Anbar and is one of the central government’s most senior Sunni officials. He appeared before Wednesday’s rally and was held aloft by the crowds.
Al-Issawi addressed the rally after arriving in a long convoy of black SUVs protected by heavily armed bodyguards. He condemned last week’s raid on his office and rattled off a list of grievances aimed at al-Maliki’s government.
“Injustice, marginalization, discrimination and double standards, as well as the politicization of the judiciary system and a lack of respect for partnership, the law and the constitution ... have all turned our neighborhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks,” he said.
Al-Issawi’s case is exacerbating tensions between the Shiite-dominated government and Iraq’s Sunnis, who see the detentions as politically motivated.
“The danger is that the revolution in Syria is perpetuating Sunni opportunism and overconfidence in Iraq,” said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Al-Maliki may have sparked a Sunni tribal movement that will attempt to harness and capitalize on the revolutionary spirit,” he added.
Large numbers of protesters also took to the streets in Samarra, a Sunni-dominated town 95km north of Baghdad, Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi said.
Many Sunnis see the arrest of the finance minister’s guards as the latest in a series of moves by the Shiite prime minister against their sect and other perceived political opponents.
Al-Maliki has defended the arrests of the finance minister’s guards as legal and based on warrants issued by judicial authorities. He also recently warned against a return to sectarian strife in criticizing the responses of prominent Sunni officials to the detentions.
In a recent statement, the prime minister dismissed the rhetoric as political posturing ahead of provincial elections set for April and warned his opponents not to forget the dark days of sectarian fighting “when we used to collect bodies and chopped heads from the streets.”
Al-Maliki spokesman Ali al-Moussawi criticized al-Issawi’s participation in the protest on Wednesday.
“He can’t be in the government and use the street against it at the same time. If he can’t shoulder his responsibilities then he has to step down so that another person can take over,” al-Moussawi said.
The political tensions are rising at a sensitive time. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is incapacitated following a serious stroke last week and is being treated in a German hospital. The 79-year-old president, an ethnic Kurd, is widely seen as a unifying figure with the clout to mediate among the country’s ethnic and sectarian groups.