December 27, 2012

Renewed Iraq rallies hint of Arab Spring

The third anti-government protests in a week signal a populist Sunni uprising may be in its early stages.

The Associated Press

RAMADI, Iraq - Large, noisy demonstrations against Iraq's government flared for the third time in less than a week Wednesday in Iraq's western Anbar province, raising the prospect of a fresh bout of unrest in a onetime al-Qaida stronghold on Syria's doorstep.

The rallies find echoes in the Arab Spring. Protesters chanted "the people want the downfall of the regime," a slogan that has rippled across the region and was fulfilled in Tunisia and Egypt. Other rallying cries blasted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government as illegitimate and warned that protesters "will cut off any hand that touches us."

While the demonstrators' tenacious show of force could signal the start of a more populist Sunni opposition movement, it risks widening the deep and increasingly bitter rifts with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. If left unresolved, those disputes could lead to a new eruption of sectarian violence.

The car bombings and other indiscriminate attacks that still plague Iraq are primarily the work of Sunni extremists. Vast Anbar province was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and later the birthplace of a Sunni militia that helped American and Iraqi forces fight al-Qaida.

Today, al-Qaida is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels try to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The demonstrations follow the arrest last week of 10 bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from Anbar and is one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials. He appeared before Wednesday's rally and was held aloft by the crowds.

Al-Issawi's case is exacerbating tensions between the Shiite-dominated government that rose to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and Iraq's Sunnis, who see the detentions as politically motivated.

"The danger is that the revolution in Syria is perpetuating Sunni opportunism and overconfidence in Iraq," said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. "Al-Maliki may have sparked a Sunni tribal movement that will attempt to harness and capitalize on the revolutionary spirit," he said.

Protesters turned out Wednesday near the provincial capital Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. The city and nearby Fallujah were the scenes of some of the deadliest fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents.

Demonstrators blocked the main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria, just as they did at another protest Sunday.

Wednesday's protesters held banners demanding that Sunni rights be respected and calling for the release of Sunni prisoners in Iraqi jails. "We warn the government not to draw the country into sectarian conflict," read one. Another declared: "We are not a minority."

Al-Issawi, the finance minister, addressed the rally after arriving in a long convoy of black SUVs protected by heavily armed bodyguards. He condemned last week's raid on his office and rattled off a list of grievances aimed at al-Maliki's government.

"Injustice, marginalization, discrimination and double standards, as well as the politicization of the judiciary system and a lack of respect for partnership, the law and the constitution ... have all turned our neighborhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks," he declared.

Large numbers of protesters also took to the streets in Samarra, a Sunni-dominated town 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, according to Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi.

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