Islamists pursue own agenda in Iraq's Sunni protests
By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Street protests in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland pose a new challenge to Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki as shock waves from the Sunni-led insurgency in nearby Syria strain his country's fragile political balance.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis have staged demonstrations, and in Anbar province they have blocked a highway to Syria in a show of anger against Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalizing their community and monopolizing power.
The discontent is real, but the protests are driven by Sunni Islamist parties bent on carving out an autonomous region akin to the Kurdish one in the north, Kurdish and Sunni sources say.
They say the Sunni Islamists scent an opportunity to escape what they see as Shi'ite domination, counting on a victory by Sunni rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite minority has its roots in Shi'ite Islam.
Assad's eventual demise would weaken the sway of Shi'ite Iran, Syria's main regional ally and an influential player in Iraqi politics. Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have backed the Syrian leader's adversaries.
Heartened by a possible shift in the Sunni-Shi'ite balance of power in the Middle East, Iraq's Sunnis are giving vent to the frustrations they have endured since the U.S.-led invasion overthrew Saddam Hussein and empowered majority Shi'ites.
Some waving Saddam-era Iraqi flags, protesters have echoed the chants of Arab uprisings that have brought down leaders in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen in the past two years.
"We will never relent. Enough of Sunnis living in Iraq like outsiders. This time it's do or die for us," said Jamal Adham, a tribal leader from Saddam's former hometown of Tikrit. Continued...