x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis protest against Al Maliki government

Many Sunnis, whose community dominated Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, accuse the prime minister of refusing to share power and of favouring Iran.

Sunnis in Iraq wave the old national flag during an anti-government demonstration in Fallujah on Friday.
Sunnis in Iraq wave the old national flag during an anti-government demonstration in Fallujah on Friday.

RAMADI, IRAQ // Tens of thousands of protesters from Iraq's Sunni minority poured onto the streets after Friday prayers in a show of force against the Shiite prime minister, keeping up a week-old blockade of a motorway.

About 60,000 people blocked the main road through the city of Fallujah, 50 kilometres west of the capital, setting fire to an Iranian flag and shouting "out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free" and "Maliki you coward, don't take your advice from Iran", referring to the prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki.

Many Sunnis, whose community dominated Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, accuse Mr Al Maliki of refusing to share power and of favouring Iran.

Protests flared last week after troops loyal to Mr Al Maliki detained bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.

Activists demands include an end to the marginalisation of Sunnis, the abolition of antiterrorism laws they say are used to target them, and the release of detainees.

"I came to Fallujah to express my support for their demands. I hope we proceed to Baghdad," said Faiq Al Awazi, 48.

Demonstrations were also held in the northern city of Mosul and in Samarra, where protesters chanted "the people want to bring down the regime", echoing the slogan used in popular revolts that ousted leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

Speaking at a "reconciliation" conference broadcast on television, Mr Al Maliki said: "It is not acceptable to express something by blocking roads, inciting sedition and sectarianism, killing, or blowing the trumpet of war and dividing Iraq."

The protests are likely to add to concerns the civil war in Syria, where majority Sunnis are fighting to topple a ruler backed by Shiite Iran, will drive Iraq back to the sectarian slaughter of 2005-07.

Militants linked to Al Qaeda appear to be regrouping in Anbar and to be joining rebel ranks across the border in Syria.

Protesters in the city of Ramadi in Anbar province raised pictures of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has lined up against Bashar Al Assad, the Syrian President, and has sparred increasingly often with Mr Maliki.

In Iraq's Shiite south, a small anti-Erdogan protest was held in the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometres from Baghdad.

Sunni complaints against Mr Al Maliki grew louder a week ago following the arrest of the finance minister Rafaie Al Esawi's bodyguards hours after the Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd seen as a steadying influence, was flown abroad for medical care.

For many, that was reminiscent of a move to arrest the Sunni vice president, Tareq Al Hashemi, one year ago, just when US troops had withdrawn. Mr Al Hashemi fled into exile and was subsequently sentenced to death in absentia.

Mr 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.