Sunnis gather in Iraqi cities in mass protests

Tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims rallied in several Iraqi cities to protest what they describe as unfair treatment by the country`s Shi’ite-led government.

Updated: Feb 15, 2013, 19:26 PM IST

Baghdad: Tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims rallied on Friday in several Iraqi cities to protest what they describe as unfair treatment by the country`s Shi’ite-led government, extending concerns over rising sectarian tension in the country.

Sunnis have staged mass protests since late December. They are demanding that Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down, and are calling for the release of thousands of Sunnis they say were rounded up arbitrarily under the guise of counter-terrorism regulations. They also want authorities to rescind policies they say discriminate against Sunnis.

Protestors had hoped to move their demonstrations from predominantly Sunni provinces to Baghdad today, but they backed off that plan after the government rejected their request and imposed tough security measures. Government security forces blocked roads leading from Sunni-dominated provinces and sealed off all Sunni neighbourhoods.

In the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, former insurgent strongholds, demonstrators blocked the main highway to Jordan and Syria to perform Friday noon prayers. Others gathered in main squares in the northern cities of Samarra, Mosul and Kirkuk. Local residents rallied outside a prominent Sunni mosque in the Baghdad.

"Where is the partnership you are talking about? Sunnis are only seeing genocide and marginalisation," shouted cleric Saad al-Fayadh in front of thousands of worshippers in Ramadi. His speech was interrupted many times by demonstrators who pumped their fists in the air and shouted: "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great."

The cleric accused the Shi’ite-led government of letting Iranian influence grow in Baghdad, saying Iranian pilgrims can travel to the country easily and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have marched in the streets.

Some protesters vowed to yet take their rallies to the capital by holding banners read: "Baghdad, be patient," and "Baghdad, not yet”.

To ease tension, the government formed a committee to consider the Sunnis` demands. It has released about 3,000 detainees and is working on clearing thousands of Saddam Hussein-era officials to allow them to have pensions or sell their properties that were blocked after 2003 US-led invasion.

Hours before Friday prayers, three mortar rounds landed in a military base in Fallujah, but there was no word on casualties, according to police and army officers. The officers spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to release information.