Hundreds of thousands of Sunni protesters have held anti-government protests in Iraq’s Anbar province, complaining of marginalisation by the Shia-led government.
Large rallies were held in the provincial capital of Ramadi and in Fallujah on Friday. Protesters also marched in the capital Baghdad, in the northern city of Mosul and in the central city of Samarra.
In Fallujah and Ramadi, demonstrators performed Friday’s noon prayers, the highlight of the religious week, on the highway, which links Iraq with Jordan.
Protesters complain of official discrimination, saying anti-terrorism laws and other policies largely target minority Sunnis. The protests were sparked by the December arrests of bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, a Sunni.
Tribal leaders and political activists also called protests in Fallujah in solidarity with seven young men killed in clashes between government forces and protesters in the city last week. Tens of thousands of protesters held photographs of those killed in last week’s demonstrations and shouted anti-government slogans.
Al Jazeera’s Jane Arraf, reporting from Fallujah, said many had walked for hours to attend Friday’s protest and had turned the highway into a mosque for the weekly prayers.
“Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is under increasing pressure to listen to their demands,” she said, adding that a lot of the protesters, mostly young men, were unemployed and that a lot of them have been in jail.
“They feel they’ve been neglected by the Shia government,” she said.
Maliki’s government has offered some concessions, including the freeing of hundreds of prisoners, but protesters have grown more defiant since the deaths in Fallujah last week.
“We will never forget what the army did to us, not only last Friday, but all of their behaviour has been sectarian against
us,” Omar Al-Jumaili, 51, in Fallujah city. “Our new demand; the Iraqi army should leave this area.”
The prime minister has appointed a senior Shia figure to talk to demonstrators about demands such as an amnesty law and easing of so-called de-Baathification campaign against former members of Saddam’ Hussains outlawed Baath party.
Meanwhile, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group called on Sunnis to take up arms against the government.
In an audio statement posted on Friday on the website of the Islamic State of Iraq, spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani says Sunnis can bow to the Shias or take up arms to restore “dignity and freedom”.
Al-Adnani said the ongoing protests against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki mark the end of Sunni humiliation in Iraq.
Protest organisers in Ramadi, Fallujah and elsewhere, however, said that they had no links to the group, and that they aimed to hold only peaceful demonstrations.