Iraqi Sunni Muslims wave the old flag of Iraq during an anti-government demonstration in Ramadi, 100km west of Baghdad. Photo by Reuters
Thousands of protesters from Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority
have kept up a week-old blockade on a key highway and readied
mass rallies to demand concessions from Prime Minister Nuri
Protests flared last week after troops loyal to Maliki, who
is from the Shi'ite majority, detained bodyguards of his
finance minister, a Sunni. Many Sunnis, whose community
dominated Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein, accuse
Maliki of refusing to share power and of favouring Shi'ite,
non-Arab neighbour Iran.
A year after U.S. 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
"The people want to bring down the regime," chanted some of
about 2000 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 rebels in
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 rebel flag was also flown at the
The main highway at Ramadi, 100km west of Baghdad, was
barricaded for a fifth day, disrupting transit of government
supplies along a key trade route to and from Jordan and
Syria. Protesters were, however, letting most trucks,
carrying private goods, pass along another road through
There was also a small protest in the northern city of Mosul.
Activists, who want changes to laws on terrorism that they
say penalise Sunnis, plan bigger rallies on Friday, the
traditional day of rest - and protest - in the Muslim world.
"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
Recalling the role the Anbar tribes played in first fighting
the U.S. occupation and then allying with U.S. forces and the
Baghdad government to contain al Qaeda fighters in the
region, the sheikh warned Maliki's administration that Sunnis
might resort to violence - though it is unclear how ready
"Just as we fought al-Qaeda and the Americans, we will fight
the government inside Baghdad," he said.
Should Friday's protests provide a mass show of force, it may
add 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 Sunni-Shi'ite slaughter of
Al Qaeda fighters appear to be regrouping in Anbar and to be
joining rebel ranks across the border in Syria.
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 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 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 bodyguards for Finance Minister Rafaie
For many it recalled how Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a
Sunni, was forced to flee into exile a year ago, just when
U.S. troops had withdrawn. Hashemi, sentenced to death in
absentia, told al-Hayat newspaper on Thursday that it was
"fresh evidence of a plot to exclude Sunni Arabs from the
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
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.
Shi'ite rivals to Maliki, notably cleric Moqtada al-Sadr,
have also looked to broader alliance, notably by voicing
support for the protesters' grievances in Anbar this week.
But anti-Shi'ite 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,
told Reuters. "I don't expect many Maliki opponents to join
An analyst at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies also
doubted the protests would broaden greatly to threaten
Maliki: "We are talking about demands that have a certain
geography," said Yahya Qubaisi. "They are not national