Iraq’s prime minister has questioned the role of Turkey and Syrian rebels in stoking unrest, as Sunni protesters in the country continued to demand the release of prisoners held by the Shia-led government.
Nouri al-Maliki, in a televised interview, said on Sunday evening that the protests had “a sectarian dimensions and extension”.
“We may have differences with one another but what relation does [Turkish Prime Minister] Erdogan have in this? Why is his poster lifted? This is an indication of support and we don’t need to accuse anyone,” Maliki told al-Sumariya TV.
“Why is the flag of the Free Syrian Army raised and what relation does it have with the demands of people? Why are the posters of Islamic state in Iraq lifted in the protests?”
Protests blocking a key highway linking Iraq to Syria and Jordan entered a tenth day on Monday and authorities north of Baghdad declared general strikes a day earlier.
The protests were sparked by the arrest on December 20 of bodyguards of Iraq’s finance minister, a Sunni, and have spurred allegations that the government was using anti-terror legislation to target the Sunni minority.
Iraqi authorities on Monday called for an end to what a senior official said were illegal and illegitimate protest rallies in Sunni-majority provinces including Salaheddin, Nineveh and Anbar.
A statement posted on the website of Ali al-Alaak, cabinet secretary general, acknowledged that the constitution guaranteed freedom of expression, assembly and dissent, but added that such freedoms must be practised “in a way that does not oppose public order”.
“These should not be carried out without the knowledge of authorities and their permission,” it said. “What is happening now… is breaking the law and the constitution.”
On Sunday, the bodyguards for Iraq’s deputy prime minister wounded two people when they fired warning shots at protesters who pelted his convoy with bottles and stones, witnesses said.
The incident took place in the city of Ramadi in the western province of Anbar, to where Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq had travelled to address people in an attempt to defuse sectarian tensions.
In a statement following the incident, Mutlaq said some “rogue elements” at the protest had tried to kill him.
“Upon the deputy prime minister’s arrival, the protesters greeted him with great warmth … but some rogue elements which seek to divert the protesters from their legitimate demands carried out a cowardly assassination attempt against Doctor Mutlaq,” it read.
Protesters are demanding an end to what they see as the marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni minority, which dominated the country until the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled the then president Saddam Hussein.
Echoing slogans used in popular revolts that brought down leaders in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Yemen, protesters have also called on Maliki to step down.
“Is this the way to deal with peaceful protesters? To shoot them? This is really outrageous,” said protester Ghazwan al-Fahdawi, displaying empty bullet casings from shots he said had been fired by Mutlaq’s guards.
In the northern city of Mosul, the provincial council on Sunday called a three-day strike to press Baghdad to release women prisoners and stop targeting Sunni politicians.
The Arab League described recent developments as “worrying” and called for dialogue in a statement released on Friday.
A year after US troops left, sectarian friction, as well as tension over land and oil between Arabs and ethnic Kurds, threaten renewed unrest and are hampering efforts to repair the damage of years of violence and exploit Iraq’s energy riches.