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Iraqis stage large anti-government rallies

Tens of thousands protest in Iraq against Prime Minister Maliki, Iranian influence on Iraqi politics, and in defence of women and prisoners rights

Reuters , Saturday 29 Dec 2012
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Tens of thousands of Iraqi protesters have poured onto the streets against Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, keeping up a week-long blockade of a major highway in Iraq.

Around 60,000 people blocked the main road through Falluja, 50 kilometres (30 miles) west of Baghdad, after Friday prayers, setting fire to the flag of Iran and shouting "Out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free!" and "Maliki you coward, don't take your advice from Iran!"

Many Sunni Iraqis accuse Maliki of being sectarian, of refusing to share power and of being under the sway of Iran. "We will not leave this place until all our demands are fulfilled, including the toppling of the Maliki government," said 31-year-old Omar Al-Dahal at a protest in Ramadi, where more than 100,000 protesters blocked the same highway as it leads to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

Activists' demands include an end to the marginalisation of Sunnis, the abolition of anti-terrorism laws they say are used to target them, and the release of detainees.

Protests flared last week in Al-Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold in western Iraq where demonstrators have mounted the blockade, after troops loyal to Maliki, Shia, detained the bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.

Demonstrations were also held in the northern city of Mosul and in Samarra, where protesters chanted "The people want to bring down the regime!" echoing the slogan used in popular revolts that ousted autocratic leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

The protests are driven in part by the alleged rape of a female detainee in a government prison near Mosul by an army officer, and where the government refused to arrest the accused. 

Maliki's security forces did not move to break up the protests in Al-Anbar, but prevented people from other provinces from heading to Al-Anbar to join the rallies there.

Speaking at a "reconciliation" conference broadcast on television, Maliki called for dialogue. "It is not acceptable to express something by blocking roads, inciting sedition and sectarianism, killing, or blowing the trumpet of war and dividing Iraq," he said.

A masked protester who refused to give his name recalled the role of Anbar's tribes, first in fighting US troops before then driving militants out, turning on Al-Qaeda, which attempted to take root in the province, because of its indiscriminate use of violence. "Just as we terrified the Americans with this mask, and kicked Al-Qaeda out, we will terrify the government with it," he said.

Highlighting the increasingly regional dimension, protesters in Falluja raised pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan, who has lined up against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and has sparred increasingly often with Maliki.

In Iraq's largely Shia populated south, a small anti-Erdogan protest was held in the holy city of Najaf, 160 kilometres (100 miles) from Baghdad.

Sunni complaints against Maliki grew louder a week ago following the arrest of Finance Minister Rafaie Al-Esawi's bodyguards hours after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and understood as playing a balancing role, was flown abroad for medical care.

For many, it was reminiscent of a move to arrest Sunni Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi a year ago, just as US troops had withdrawn. Hashemi fled into exile and was subsequently sentenced to death in absentia.

Maliki has sought to divide his rivals and strengthen alliances in Iraq's complex political landscape before provincial elections next year and a parliamentary vote in 2014.

A face-off between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces over disputed oilfields in the north has been seen as a possible way of rallying Sunni Arab support behind the prime minister.

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