I have been to the Pride and Dignity Square in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, many times over the last four months. But this is the first time I am seeing signs that indicate a clash is imminent.
I saw teenagers and men armed with sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and AK47s at the square on Friday. They were taking their position in different corners and outside the square. They were covering their faces.
They say they are protecting the protesters against any attack by the government forces.
We were asked not film because, they said, “it wasn’t the right time”.
But when the Friday sermon started, it was clear what was coming next.
“Do you agree to sacrifice yourselves and defending your honour?” asked the religous leader who was addressing tens of thousands of people.
“Yes! God is the greatest,” the crowd responded.
“Do you accept to die for the sake of God?” the religious leader asked again.
He got the same the answer.
Call to organise
Then came the clear call: to form an army made up of tribes and armed groups to protect Sunni Muslim areas that have been holding anti-government protests.
Those protests have been going on for more than four months now.
Sunnis say they are discriminated against and are being marginalised by the government of Nouri Al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia Muslim prime minister.
Now, in addition to the demands for the abolition of anti-terrorism laws – which Sunnis say target them – and the release of prisoners, protesters have other demands.
They want to overthrow Maliki and have him tried before an international court along with his military commanders for their role in the attack against protesters in the town of Hawija on Tuesday.
That attack left more than 50 people killed.
Maliki gave a speech on Thursday calling on all Iraqis to be brothers and to unite. He warned against pushing the country back into bloody sectarian strife.
That speech did not resonate with protesters in Ramadi and others Sunni-majority areas.
Sunni safe haven
One religious leader, described as a spokesman for the protests in Anbar, said the plan wa to form an Army of Pride to create a Sunni safe haven in Anbar, “a haven in which Sunnis are not killed or jailed”.
“Then we move on to Baghdad,” he said.
His words made the crowd roar. The Iraqi army is not welcomed in Anbar and the word is that attacks against them could start soon.
I overheard two men discussing the developments.
One said this time, it was not armed groups that would fight the government armed groups and tribes would unite against a “common enemy”.
Another man said that he was touched by the sermons delivered. “It’s enough. Sunnis have been suffering for 10 years now,” he said.
“Either we live with pride or die in honour.”