Iraq Sunni rallies gather steam

Thu Dec 27, 2012 2:25pm EST
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By Kamal Naama and Aseel Kami

RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters from Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority kept up a week-old blockade on a key highway on Thursday and readied mass rallies for Friday to demand concessions from Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

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 favoring Shi'ite, non-Arab neighbor 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 riches.

"The people want to bring down the regime," chanted some of about 2,000 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 neighboring Syria.

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 protests.

The main highway at Ramadi, 100 km (60 miles) 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.

There was also a small protest in the northern city of Mosul. Activists, who want changes to laws on terrorism that they say penalize 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 Anbar.   Continued...

Protesters take part in a demonstration in Ramadi, 100 km (62 miles) west of Baghdad, December 26, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer