RAMADI: Wearing military fatigues with his cleric’s turban, Sheikh Ali Muhaibes brought Friday prayers in Iraq’s Sunni Muslim heartland to a climax with chilling words for the Shia-led government.
“If you want jihad, we’re ready. If you want confrontation, we’re ready. And if you want us to go to Baghdad, we’re coming,” he roared to the crowd in the western province of Anbar.
For months, Sunnis have been protesting against Shia Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalising their minority sect and monopolising power since US-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Now the mood is suddenly uglier.
Government concessions had begun to defuse Sunni unrest, but, when security forces raided a protest camp in the town of Hawija on April 23, clashes swiftly spread to other Sunni areas, raising fears that Iraq might slide back into the kind of all-out sectarian bloodletting that ravaged it in 2006-7.
“We worked together to bury sectarianism, but it is rearing its head again,” Maliki told Sunni and Shia clerics at an Islamic “rapprochement and dialogue” conference on Saturday.
But many Iraqis fear such efforts will prove futile.
War fatigue may be wearing off, US troops who once acted as a buffer are long gone and the war in neighbouring Syria is fuelling Sunni-Shia rivalry across the Middle East.
Protest leaders in Anbar have urged Sunni tribes to provide 100 armed men each for a self-defence “army” for the province.
“We do not accept to live as second-class citizens. We are the sons of Iraq,” said Sheikh Abdul-Rahman Al Zubaie, a tribal leader in Ramadi, the provincial capital.