Published — Saturday 2 February 2013
Last update 3 February 2013 12:08 pm
FALLUJAH: Chanting “No” to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, tens of thousands of Sunnis protested after Friday prayers in huge rallies against the Shiite premier that are raising the specter of renewed sectarian unrest.
Sunni outrage erupted in late December over what protesters see as abuses and discrimination against their minority sect since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the country’s Shiite majority.
Waving the old three-star Iraqi flag from Saddam’s era, Sunni clerics, tribal sheikhs and young protesters called for reform of anti-terrorism laws they say security forces abuse to target Sunnis and unfairly detain prisoners.
Al-Maliki has offered concessions, and freed hundreds of prisoners. But Sunni protesters have grown more defiant after soldiers opened fire at a Fallujah city rally, killing five people a week ago.
“We will never forget what the army did to us, not only last Friday, but all of their behavior has been sectarian against us,” Omar Al-Jumaili, 51, in Fallujah city. “Our new demand; the Iraqi army should leave this area.”
Sunni ranks are already split among moderates and hard-liners who are threatening Iraq’s unity with a more radical demand for an autonomous Sunni fiefdom in western Iraq along the border with Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The protests are evolving in the most serious test yet for Al-Maliki and his fragile government that splits posts among Shiite, Sunni and ethnic Kurds, who were already deadlocked over how to share power for more than a year.
Iraq’s Al-Qaeda affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq, still active after years of losses against American and Iraqi soldiers, has also urged Sunni protesters to take up arms though moderate leaders reject the incitement to violence.
Al-Maliki has appointed a senior Shiite figure to talk to demonstrators about demands such as an amnesty law and easing of so-called de-Baathification campaign against former members of Saddam’s outlawed Baath party.
Iraq’s vice premier Saleh Al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, said a meeting yesterday with Al-Maliki’s Shiite National Alliance coalition and Sunni-backed Iraqiya had been positive on proposed reforms.
“We can say there was a progress in this meeting, which may be hasn’t happened in the previous ones,” he said.