Patience wearing thin among Iraq's Sunnis


ANALYSIS:Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia government has failed to placate the country’s minority

Tens of thousands of Sunnis mounted protests across western Iraq yesterday, calling for the fall of the Shia fundamentalist government headed by prime minister Nuri al- Maliki.

Near the city of Ramadi in the Sunni majority province of Anbar, thousands massed on the broad highway linking Baghdad to Amman, the Jordanian capital.

Demonstrators in Fallujah, also in Anbar, declared the day a “Friday of honour” and took up the chant of the 2011 Egyptian rising: “The people want the end of the regime.” Fallujah’s participation was particularly significant because the city has been a symbol of resistance for 90 years.

Fallujah was the centre of the 1920-22 Iraqi rising against the British and of resistance against the US occupation in 2003-04.

In the northern city of Mosul, the capital of Nineveh province, demonstrators demanded the release of Sunni prisoners and denounced the marginalisation of Sunnis by the Shia regime.

In Salahuddin province, thousands protested in Takrit, home town of ousted president Saddam Hussein, and also in Samarra.

Mr Maliki responded to the demonstrations by warning against a revival of sectarian conflict. “Nations that look for peace, love and reconstruction must choose civilised ways to express themselves,” he said. “It is not acceptable to express opinions by blocking the roads, encouraging sectarianism, threatening to launch wars and dividing Iraq. Instead, we need to talk, to listen to each other and to agree . . . to end our differences.”

Deaf ears

His words are likely to fall on deaf ears. Protests began last weekend with the arrest on charges of involvement in death squads of 10 bodyguards assigned to finance minister Rafi’ al-Issawi, who hails from Anbar.

These arrests mirror detentions on similar charges of the bodyguards of vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi who a year ago fled Baghdad to avoid arrest on murder charges.

He was convicted and sentenced to death in absentia last September, but has been granted refuge in Turkey.

He dismisses the charges as being designed to exclude Sunnis from power.

Al-Hashemi was a senior figure in the secular Iraqiya party, led by Iyad Allawi, which secured the largest number of seats in the parliamentary election of 2010. But Iraqiya was unable to form a government due to Shia fundamentalist opposition.

After months of wrangling, Mr Maliki named a cabinet but reserved the key portfolios of defence and interior for himself and gradually tightened his grip on power.

He failed to deliver on promises to create a national security post for Mr Allawi or to recruit Sunnis into the armed forces who had fought with US troops against al-Qaeda and other extremist militants during 2007.

Mr Maliki’s actions have alienated Sunnis who now seek to convince secularists, Christians and members of other communities to join the cause of toppling Mr Maliki through mass action.

Militant Sunnis have also established the Iraqi Free Army.

This faction is modelled on the rebel Syrian Free Army. Jihadi Iraqis fighting in Syria plan on their return home to tackle the Shia regime.