Mass protests in Iraq; government warns of terrorist attack
Thousands of Iraqis, mainly Sunni Muslims, took to the streets Friday to denounce Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's "marginalization" of the Sunni minority, as the government warned of terrorist attacks dpa reported.
The demonstrators rallied after Friday prayers in the largely Sunni district of Azamia, in the capital Baghdad, and the northern cities of Mosul and Kirkuk in a show of solidarity with protesters in the western province of Anbar who started their agitation against the government two weeks ago.
Police fired in the air to disperse protesters in Mosul, broadcaster Al Jazeera reported.
The turmoil erupted in December when bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi were arrested on terrorism-related charges.
Al-Maliki denied he had ordered the arrests, saying the bodyguards were held following an independent judicial inquiry based on the anti-terrorism law.
According to Iraqi media, of the 10 bodyguards arrested, four were released and six were still in detention.
The protesters were also demanding the release of other Sunni prisoners, mainly women, and the repeal of anti-terrorism legislation they say especially targets Sunnis.
The government's critics say that police have in recent years detained hundreds of women whose husbands and sons are suspected of involvement in terrorism-related offences.
Earlier in the week, al-Maliki, facing one of the toughest crises since taking office in 2006, promised to expedite the investigation of these cases, but said that cancelling the anti-terrorism law was up to parliament.
The influential Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, gave his support to the protesters' demands.
"The idea of the anti-terrorism law is good, but its misapplication has earned the people's hostility and rejection," said al-Sadr, during a visit to a Baghdad church hit by a deadly attack in 2010.
The government, meanwhile, warned of possible "terrorists attacks" against the protesters by al-Qaeda and the former ruling Baath Party.
"The security agencies have learnt that armed terrorist groups plan to infiltrate into protests in Anbar to carry out terrorist acts with the aim of causing chaos and dragging the armed forces into a confrontation," al-Maliki's office said, according to independent Iraqi website Alsumariya News.
Hundreds of protesters in Anbar have camped out for two weeks, blocking a highway that leads to Jordan and Syria.
Al-Maliki has threatened to use force to end the sit-in, which he says is illegal.
The premier's relations with Iraq's Sunnis worsened dramatically in 2011, when the authorities issued an arrest warrant against Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on terrorism charges.
Al-Hashemi denied the accusations and fled to Turkey. He has since received three death sentences, in absentia.