BAGHDAD // A top aide to the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein urged Sunni protesters yesterday to topple the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and thwart what he called its secret plans to destroy Iraq and annex it to Iran.
The declaration by Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri, who led the now-banned Baath party after Saddam was executed in 2006, comes after two weeks of demonstrations in which tens of thousands of Sunnis - some waving Saddam-era flags - have rallied in a swelling show of anger against the administration of prime minister Nouri Al Maliki.
The demonstrators, emboldened by the Sunni-led insurgency against Bashar Al Assad in Syria, accuse Mr Al Maliki of monopolising power and marginalising the minority Sunni community.
Mr Al Douri sought to spur them on yesterday. "The people of Iraq and all its nationalist and Islamic forces support you until the realisation of your just demands for the fall of the Safavid-Persian alliance," he told protesters marking the anniversary of the formation of the Iraqi army. Safavid is a reference to the ruling dynasty of Shiite Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries that at times also controlled parts of modern-day Iraq.
Since Mr Maliki came to office in 2006, Iraq has edged closer to Iran, which wields strong influence over several Iraqi Shiite parties.
Surrounded by men in military uniform, Mr Al Douri said the Baath party 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 before Maliki and his evil alliance."
Mr Al Douri said he was speaking from the Iraqi province of Babil.
After the 2003 invasion, Mr Al Douri was ranked sixth on the US military's list of 55 most wanted Iraqis and a $10 million (Dh37m) reward was offered for his capture. US officials accused him of organising the insurgency that peaked in 2005-07. The recent protests have been centred in Al Anbar province, which borders Syria and is the only province in Iraq where Sunnis predominate. The immediate trigger for the demonstrations was the detention of the bodyguards of Rafia Al Essawi, Iraq's finance minister and a Sunni.
That has tapped into wider fears among Sunnis that Mr Al Maliki is bent on establishing a dictatorship in Iraq and is hunting down his most powerful opponents one by one. Fuelling the worries are rumours that the prime minister is planning to dissolve parliament, allegations that his allies have vehemently denied.
Among those rivals is the vice president Tariq Al Hashemi, who fled Iraq in December 2011 to avoid arrest on murder charges. He was tried and sentenced to death in his absence in September and now lives in exile in Turkey.
In recent interviews, Mr Al Hashemi accused Mr Al Maliki of waging "tyranny" and described the current protests as the "beginning of a popular uprising and the Iraqi Spring".
Amid worries of escalating sectarian tension in Iraq, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister yesterday warned against heeding the appeals of extremists, and urged calm.
"We are convinced that Iraq will not stabilise until it starts handling issues without sectarian extremism. Until these issues are addressed, we don't think there will ever be stability in Iraq, which pains us," the foreign minister Prince Saud Al Faisal said.
The organisers of the recent protests in Iraq deny that their efforts merely represent more of the same sectarianism that has afflicted Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. They insist that the targets of their anger are corrupt Sunni politicians, as well as Mr Al Maliki and his supporters.
"We won't allow any current Sunni politician to steal our efforts, or recruit our protests in his name," said Abdullah Al Nayel, one of the protest leaders. "When we needed them, they were busy making their bellies fat, and filled their pockets with our wealth. They climbed on our shoulders then Maliki bought them."
Mr Al Maliki has urged an end to the protests but many of the protesters fear he will order a violent crackdown by security forces and are arming themselves, Mr Al Nayel said.
"If he attacks a peaceful rally, we will defend ourselves," he said. "We came here in peace to cause change, using a democratic method."
Efforts at calming tensions have been hampered by the absence of the president, Jalal Talabani, who is convalescing in a hospital in Berlin after a stroke. Mr Talabani, a Kurd, is known for his negotiating skills across sectarian lines.
Frustration among Iraq's Sunnis has grown as the Shiite grip on the south of the country has tightened and the Kurds in the north-east exert ever greater control over their daily affairs. Al Anbar province, Iraq's largest, is rich in oil, but Sunnis so far have been unable to translate that into political influence.
Mr Al Malaki is the focus of their discontent, despite his attempts in the past few days at reconciliation after tough warnings of a clampdown a week ago.
To date, the prime minister has demonstrated one attribute above all others, said Gandanfar Maher, a former history professor from the southern province of Basra: his skill at political survival.
"Al Maliki is acting like a sheep in front of Sunni protesters, promising to release Sunni protesters and calling for love and peace and for everyone to sit at the table of brotherhood. Whatever threatens his political seat, he will do anything just to keep his position."
* With additional reporting from Reuters