THOUSANDS of protesters kept up a week-old blockade on a key highway on Thursday and Friday asking Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to resign.
Protests flared last week after troops loyal to Al-Maliki, who is from the Shiite majority, detained articlebodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni. Many Sunnis accuse Al-Maliki of refusing to share power and of favoring Shiite, non-Arab neighbor Iran.
A year after US troops left, sectarian friction, as well as tension over land and oil between Arabs and ethnic Kurds, threaten renewed unrest and are hampering efforts to repair the damage of years of violence and exploit Iraq’s energy riches.
“The people want to bring down the regime,” chanted some of about 2,000 demonstrators in the Sunni city of Ramadi — an echo of those used abroad during last year’s “Arab Spring” and still a rallying cry for mainly Sunni fighters in neighboring Syria.
Some flew the old Iraqi flag, introduced by Saddam’s Baath party and bearing three stars. It was replaced in 2008. Earlier in the week, Syria’s fighters’ flag was also flown at the protests.
Activists, who want changes to laws on terrorism that they say penalize Sunnis. “If the government does not deal seriously with the people’s demands, we will take our battle to the gates of Baghdad,” said Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman, head of the Dulaimi tribe, which dominates Ramadi and the sprawling desert province of Anbar. Recalling the role the Anbar tribes played in first fighting the US occupation and then allying with US forces and the Baghdad government to contain Al-Qaeda fighters in the region, the sheikh warned Al-Maliki’s administration that Sunnis might resort to violence — though it is unclear how ready they are:
“Just as we fought Al-Qaeda and the Americans, we will fight the government inside Baghdad,” he said.
Yesterday’s protests provided a mass show of force, it added to concerns that the increasingly sectarian Syrian civil war, where majority Sunnis are battling a ruler backed by Iran, will push Iraq back to the sectarian civil war.
While demands so far focus on the anti-terrorism laws which Sunnis say are being used against them, one lecturer in law at Baghdad University said Sunnis might be emboldened to call for regional autonomy in Anbar and other provinces in the northwest where they are in a majority — a status similar to that of the Kurds, who won Western-backed autonomy from Saddam in 1991. “I’m seeing greater determination to defy Al-Maliki and if their demands are not met, the call to have their own region will be an inevitable consequence,” said Ahmed Younis. “The Kurdish region could become a model for Sunnis in Anbar.”
Sunni complaints against Al-Maliki grew louder a week ago when, just hours after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd seen as a steadying influence, was flown abroad for medical care, troops arrested articlebodyguards for Finance Minister Rafaie Al-Esawi.
For many it recalled how Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi, a Sunni, was forced to flee into exile a year ago, just when US troops had withdrawn. Hashemi, sentenced to death in absentia, said on Thursday that it was “fresh evidence of a plot to exclude Sunni Arabs from the political process.”
Al-Maliki has sought to divide his rivals and strengthen alliances in Iraq’s complex political landscape before provincial elections next year and a parliamentary vote in 2014.
A face-off between the Iraqi Army and Kurdish forces over disputed oilfields in the north has been seen as a possible way of rallying Sunni Arab support behind the prime minister.
Shiite rivals to Al-Maliki, notably cleric Muqtada Sadr, have also looked to broader alliance, notably by voicing support for the protesters’ grievances in Anbar this week. But anti-Shiite rhetoric among them limits the chances for cooperation: “They lost a lot of sympathy by using these sectarian slogans,” lawmaker Hakim Al-Zamili, a Sadr ally, said. “I don’t expect many Al-Maliki opponents to join them.”