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BAGHDAD: The most senior member of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s entourage still at large has urged Sunni Muslim anti-government protesters to stand their ground until Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki is toppled.
Izzat Ibrahim Al Douri heads Saddam’s Baath party, which was banned after the US-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew the Sunni strongman and empowered majority Shia Muslims.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis, some waving Saddam-era flags, have staged demonstrations in a show of anger against Al Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalising their community and monopolising power.
“The people of Iraq and all its nationalist and Islamic forces support you until the realisation of your just demands for the fall of the Safavid-Persian alliance,” said Al Douri, addressing the protesters in footage broadcast on Alarabiya television.
Safavid is a reference to the ruling dynasty of Shia Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries that at times also controlled parts of modern-day Iraq.
Since Al Maliki came to office in 2006, Iraq has edged closer to neighbouring Iran, which wields strong influence over several Iraqi Shia parties.
Surrounded by men in military uniform, Al Douri said the Baath party leadership was considering launching a campaign to “justly and decisively” punish civilians and soldiers who supported what he described as Iran’s “Safavid project” for Iraq. “It is a clear plan to destroy Iraq and annex it to Iran,” he said. “We warn those traitors, agents and spies ... who support the dangerous project ... that the national resistance will confront them before Maliki and his evil alliance”.
The authenticity of the video could not be verified. Al Douri said he was speaking from the Iraqi province of Babil.
Influential Shia cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, a rival to Al Maliki who has voiced support for the Sunni rallies, said Al Douri and his followers were agents of the US and Israel and urged protesters to denounce him. “If the government is not able to seriously and urgently capture (or kill) him, this will be our job, we the soldiers of God upon earth,” he said in a statement on his website.