RAMADI, Iraq — Large, noisy demonstrations against Iraq's government flared for the third time in less than a week Wednesday in Iraq's western Anbar province, raising the prospect of a fresh bout of unrest in a onetime al-Qaida stronghold on Syria's doorstep.
The rallies find echoes in the Arab Spring. Protesters chanted "the people want the downfall of the regime," a slogan that has rippled across the region and was fulfilled in Tunisia and Egypt. Other rallying cries blasted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government as illegitimate and warned that protesters "will cut off any hand that touches us."
While the demonstrators' tenacious show of force could signal the start of a more populist Sunni opposition movement, it risks widening the deep and increasingly bitter rifts with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. If left unresolved, those disputes could lead to a new eruption of sectarian violence.
The car bombings and other indiscriminate attacks that still plague Iraq are primarily the work of Sunni extremists. Vast Anbar province was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and later the birthplace of a Sunni militia that helped American and Iraqi forces fight al-Qaida.
Today, al-Qaida is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels try to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The demonstrations follow the arrest last week of 10 bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from Anbar and is one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials. He appeared before Wednesday's rally and was held aloft by the crowds.
Al-Issawi's case is exacerbating tensions between the Shiite-dominated government that rose to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and Iraq's Sunnis, who see the detentions as politically motivated.
"The danger is that the revolution in Syria is perpetuating Sunni opportunism and overconfidence in Iraq," said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. "Al-Maliki may have sparked a Sunni tribal movement that will attempt to harness and capitalize on the revolutionary spirit," he said.
Protesters turned out Wednesday near the provincial capital Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. The city and nearby Fallujah were the scenes of some of the deadliest fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents.
Demonstrators blocked the main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria, just as they did at another protest Sunday.
Wednesday's protesters held banners demanding that Sunni rights be respected and calling for the release of Sunni prisoners in Iraqi jails. "We warn the government not to draw the country into sectarian conflict," read one. Another declared: "We are not a minority."
Al-Issawi, the finance minister, addressed the rally after arriving in a long convoy of black SUVs protected by heavily armed bodyguards. He condemned last week's raid on his office and rattled off a list of grievances aimed at al-Maliki's government.
"Injustice, marginalization, discrimination and double standards, as well as the politicization of the judiciary system and a lack of respect for partnership, the law and the constitution ... have all turned our neighborhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks," he declared.
Large numbers of protesters also took to the streets in Samarra, a Sunni-dominated town 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, according to Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi.
Many Sunnis see the arrest of the finance minister's guards as the latest in a series of moves by the Shiite prime minister against their sect and other perceived political opponents.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, another top-ranking Sunni politician, is now living in exile in Turkey after being handed multiple death sentences for allegedly running death squads — a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Al-Maliki has defended the arrests of the finance minister's guards as legal and based on warrants issued by judicial authorities. He also recently warned against a return to sectarian strife in criticizing the responses of prominent Sunni officials to the detentions.
In a recent statement, the prime minister dismissed the rhetoric as political posturing ahead of provincial elections scheduled for April and warned his opponents not to forget the dark days of sectarian fighting "when we used to collect bodies and chopped heads from the streets."
Al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, criticized al-Issawi's participation in the protest Wednesday.
"He can't be in the government and use the street against it at the same time. If he can't shoulder his responsibilities then he has to step down so that another person can take over," he said.
The political tensions are rising at a sensitive time. Iraq's ailing President Jalal Talabani is incapacitated following a serious stroke last week and is being treated in a German hospital. The 79-year-old president, an ethnic Kurd, is widely seen as a unifying figure with the clout to mediate among the country's ethnic and sectarian groups.
Also Wednesday, the United Nations mission to Iraq said its monitors have determined that a hospital that treated a member of an Iranian exile group who died this week at a refugee camp near Baghdad did not consider his health condition serious enough to warrant hospitalization when he arrived for treatment in November.
An organization representing the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq exile group on Monday accused Iraqi authorities of preventing 56-year-old Behrooz Rahimian from being hospitalized, and alleged that the U.N. failed to take sufficient steps to intervene. Iraq considers the MEK a terrorist group and wants its members out of the country.
The U.N. mission in Baghdad said in a statement Wednesday that it "does not have any indication so far that treatment was obstructed by the Iraqi authorities." It noted that representatives for the refugee residents told U.N. monitors that Rahimian "appeared to be in good condition until the time of his death."
Schreck reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed.
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