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BAGHDAD: Iraqi troops fired shots in the air to disperse Sunni Muslims rallying against Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki yesterday in another day of protests threatening to upset the fragile cross-sectarian government.
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Sunni strongholds across Iraq for more than two weeks, increasing fear that turmoil in neighbouring Syria may help tip Iraq back into sectarian violence a year after the last US troops left.
In the northern city of Mosul, troops fired shots over hundreds of protesters trying to gather in a public square, and in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar, at least 5,000 more people took to the streets peacefully.
“Security forces opened fire and used batons to disperse demonstrators,” said Atheel Al Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, 390km north of the capital Baghdad. He said one demonstrator had been hit by a security forces vehicle and others had been wounded. Ghanim Al Abid, a protest organiser in Mosul, said that at least four people had been wounded by security forces.
Demonstrators have blocked a major highway leading through the remote Anbar desert to Syria’s border since late December when Maliki’s forces arrested bodyguards protecting Finance Minister Rafaie Al Esawi, a leading Sunni figure.
The bodyguard arrests touched off protests by tens of thousands of Sunnis who feel sidelined by Maliki, a Shia Islamist who Sunni Iraqis say is amassing power and who they see as deeply under the influence of Shia non-Arab Iran.
The protests are increasing pressure on Maliki over Iraq’s power-sharing deal amoung Shia, Sunni and Kurdish blocs, which have been locked in a slow-burning crisis since the last American troops left in December 2011.
Sunni demands range from fixing failing public services to amending anti-terror laws they say are abused to target their community. Maliki has made some concessions such as releasing some detainees, but protests continue daily.
Many Sunni politicians and tribal leaders sense a chance in the crisis in neighbouring Syria, where mainly Sunni rebels are fighting to oust President Bashar Al Assad, an Iran ally whose minority Alawites have roots in Shia sect.
Should Assad fall, a Sunni regime could come to power in Syria, weakening the influence of Iran in the region’s Shia-Sunni power balance. That would embolden Iraq’s own Sunni minority, many of whom feel alienated since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Iraq’s Shia majority.
The Sunni protests erupted a day after President Jalal Talabani left Iraq for medical treatment following a stroke. A veteran Kurdish statesman, Talabani has long been a moderating influence amoung Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda’s front group in Iraq has claimed a wave of attacks across the country in the run-up to Shia mourning rituals on New Year’s Eve that killed 23 people, the SITE Monitoring Service said yesterday. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) also trumpeted its ability to launch the attacks despite heavy security put in place for Shia pilgrims as they walked to the shrine city of Karbala for the annual rituals.