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Associated Press
Followers of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr pray during Friday prayers in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City in Baghdad, Iraq, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Karim Kadim)

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 Shiite-led government, extending concerns over rising sectarian tension in the country.

Sunnis have staged mass protests since late December. They are demanding that Shiite 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.

Protesters had hoped to move their demonstrations from predominantly Sunni provinces to Baghdad on Friday, 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 neighborhoods.

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 marginalization," shouted cleric Saad al-Fayadh in front of thousands of worshippers in Ramadi.

The cleric accused the Shiite-led government of letting Iranian influence grow in Baghdad.