Sunni protesters get Shiite cleric’s backing

Sunni protesters get Shiite cleric’s backing

Sunni protesters get Shiite cleric’s backing

Beware of the Arab Spring in Iraq,’ Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr tells reporters in the Shiite city of Najaf. AP photo

Top Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr lent support yesterday to Sunni protesters who have been rallying against Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government, warning that the “Arab Spring” could take place in the country.

Al-Sadr told reporters in the Shiite holy city of Najaf that demonstrators had the right to protest as long as they were peaceful. He stopped short of calling for a wider uprising like those that have rippled across the region over the past two years, but warned of further unrest if demands on the street were not met.

“As long as the demonstrations are peaceful and don’t seek to dismantle Iraq ... we are with the protests, and Parliament should be with them, not against them. The demands of demonstrators are legitimate and popular, so they should be met.” The Associated Press quoted al-Sadr as saying.

“Beware of the Arab Spring in Iraq,” he said, in a direct warning to the power-sharing government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.

Thousands of protesters have been holding rallies in the western province of Anbar and other Sunni strongholds for more than a week. The protests were sparked by the arrest of at least nine of Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi’s guards last month, and have spurred allegations that the government uses anti-terror legislation to target Sunnis.

Al-Maliki frees prisoners

Al-Sadr backed longtime rival al-Maliki following elections in 2010, before last year joining Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for al-Maliki to resign. Al-Sadr’s loyalists hold 40 seats in Parliament and retain control of several government ministries. He said al-Maliki bore “full responsibility” for the discontent among Iraqis calling for change. Meanwhile, Premier al-Maliki looked to head off protests in Sunni areas of the country yesterday with a prisoner release even as he threatened to use state resources to “intervene” to end the rallies. Al-Maliki ordered the release of more than 700 female detainees, a key demand of demonstrators, the official appointed to negotiate with protesters, told Agence France-Presse. Maliki warned Dec. 31 protesters blocking the highway to Syria and Jordan that his patience was running thin.

 The demonstrators should “end their strike before the state intervenes to end it,” he said in an interview with the state broadcaster Iraqiya, in an apparent reference that he could order the use of military force.