Fresh rallies in Iraq as al-Qaeda urges uprising

Fresh rallies in Iraq as al-Qaeda urges uprising

Fresh rallies in Iraq as al-Qaeda urges uprising

Iraqi Sunnis chant slogans in Fallujah as thousands of protesters blocks the major highway. The protests are evolving into the most serious test for Premier al-Maliki and his gov’t that splits posts among Shiite, Sunni and Kurds.EPA photo

Tens of thousands of Sunni protesters blocked a major highway in western Iraq on Feb. 1, as an al-Qaeda-affiliated group called on Sunnis to take up arms against the Shiite-led government.

The rallies were staged in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, which straddle the highway running through Anbar province, a former al-Qaeda stronghold that saw some of the fiercest fighting against U.S. forces during the Iraq war. The turnout appeared to be among the largest since the protests began in December.

Al-Qaeda has expressed support for the protests and an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq, called on Sunnis to resort to violence against the government. Sunnis can either bow to Shiites or take up arms and restore “dignity and freedom,” said spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani. Al-Qaeda also claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that killed a Falluja lawmaker last month, and Sunni Islamist insurgents continue to hit Shiite targets in an attempt to spark inter-communal confrontation between the sects.

Call for reform with Saddam’s era flags

The protest comes at a time of mounting sectarian tensions in Iraq. Sunnis complain of official discrimination against them, and the arrests of bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafaie al-Esawi in December have sparked weekly anti-government demonstrations.

Waving the old three-star Iraqi flag from Saddam Hussein’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. Wary of Islamists inciting Sunni anger, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has offered concessions and freed hundreds of prisoners. But Sunni protesters have grown more defiant after soldiers opened fire at a Falluja rally, killing five people a week ago. On Feb. 1 demonstrators held up pictures of some of those killed. Figures showed that January was Iraq’s deadliest month since September, with attacks nationwide killing 246 people, implying that insurgents are seeking to capitalise on the political instability. 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. Deputy Premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, said a meeting with al-Maliki’s Shiite National Alliance coalition and Sunni-backed Iraqiya had been positive on proposed reforms.