Thousands of Sunni Iraqis have continued to protest in Fallujah and other in Iraqi cities against the Shia-led government in Baghdad.
Protesters after Friday prayers in the province of al-Anbar, the heartland of Iraq’s Sunni population, demanded the release of prisoners and the end to allegedly sectarian policies.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki released fourteen female prisoners a day earlier, but the measure did not seem to have defused tension.
“According to organisers of the protests and authorities in the Sunni community, the prisoners range between 40 to 50 thousand people, including men and women,” Al Jazeera’s Omar al-Saleh, reporting from Fallujah, said.
“The government says this figure is not accurate. It puts the number of female prisoners at 900 and accuses them of criminal activity and terrorism charges,” he said.
Protests have been going on for days. The rallies 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 had 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.
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 Saddam Hussein.
“The crisis has been going on for years. Since the US invasion in Iraq, the Sunni community says they have been marginalized. So not it has reached the peak. They give examples of targeting their leaders, including the finance minister and the vice-president,” al-Saleh said.
They say they want justice, equality and fair representation in state institution.
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.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Alaa Makki, head of the Sunni Iraqiya bloc in parliament, said the government has a “last chance for reconciliation”.
“This is the last chance for correction of all the [political] environment in Iraq, the political system and the judiciary system,” he said. “They [the protesters] are waiting for the government to send somebody there, representing the governmental concerns.”
The latest protests came a day after a car bomb explosion killed at least 27 Shia Muslim pilgrims in the town of Mussayab, south of Baghdad, as worshipers from around the world thronged Iraq’s shrine city of Karbala to finish mourning rituals for a revered figure in Shia Islam.
Thursday’s attack came despite a massive security operation mounted to safeguard the millions of pilgrims traveling to and from Karbala for the conclusion of Arbaeen commemorations.