Iraq mass protests mount pressure on government

Tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims take part in largest day yet in week of rallies against allegedly sectarian policies. The main highway at Ramadi, 100km west of Baghdad, was barricaded.

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have taken part in protests along a major  western highway and in other parts of the country in fresh rallies  against the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Massive demonstrations took place along a major highway near the city  of Fallujah on Friday, declaring the day a “Friday of Honour”.

The rallies appear to be the largest yet in a week of demonstrations, intensifying pressure on the Shia-led government.

In the northern city of Mosul, around 3,000 demonstrators took to the  streets to denounce what they called the sidelining of Sunnis in Iraq  and to demand the release of Sunni prisoners.

As in protests earlier in the week, demonstrators there chanted the  Arab Spring slogan: “The people want the downfall of the regime.”

Thousands also took to the streets in the northern Sunni towns of  Tikrit and Samarra, where they were joined by legislators and provincial  officials, said Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi.

Protests erupted last week after Iraqi authorities detained 10  bodyguards of the finance minister, who is from Anbar and is one of the  government’s most senior Sunni officials.

Many Sunnis accuse Maliki of marginalising the country’s religious  minority group by refusing to share power and depriving them of equal  rights.

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 Ramadi.

At a conference in Baghdad, Maliki warned against a return to  sectarian conflict and cautioned that the country is close to returning  to the “dark days when people were killed because of their names or  identities.”

He also used the occasion to take a jab at the protesters in Anbar.

“Nations that look for peace, love and reconstruction must choose  civilized ways to express themselves. It is not acceptable to express  opinions by blocking the roads, encouraging sectarianism, threating to  launch wars and dividing Iraq,” he said.

“Instead we need to talk, to listen to each other and to agree … to end our differences.”

Activists want changes to laws on terrorism that they say penalise Sunnis.

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.”