Sunni discontent and Syria fears feed Iraqi unrest
Across Iraq’s western desert, thousands of Sunni Muslims block highways, chant and pray in protests against Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that grow more defiant by the day.
Their demands are many, but the old Iraqi flags from Saddam Hussein’s era and Sunni tribal colours fluttering among them are a clear message to Maliki: Enough, our time has come again.
In Iraqi cities like Ramadi and Falluja, where tribal ties are strong, many Sunnis have harboured a sense of marginalisation ever since Saddam’s fall and the Shi’ite majority’s empowerment.
But the pent-up Sunni anger that erupted a month ago has many worried that Iraq is heading for an explosion of Shi’ite-on-Sunni violence that will divide it along sectarian faultlines.
Already protests are becoming volatile. Iraqi troops shot five people in clashes in Falluja on Friday, illustrating the room for miscalculation with sectarian hardliners and Islamist insurgents trying to steer unrest into crisis.
Just outside Ramadi, Sunni men sleep in tents and pray along a blockaded highway, wrapping themselves in old three-star Iraqi national flags, chanting slogans and waving migwars, the wooden mace that Iraqis used to fight the British in the 1920s.
Defiant banners hung on tents call out: “No to Maliki’s Justice” and “I will not leave until I get dignity”.
In fiery speeches from clerics and tribal leaders, talk of reforms mixes with calls to topple the Shi’ite-led government and the more radical demand to split away an autonomous Sunni region in Anbar province along Iraq’s western flank.
“This is just the culmination of years of injustice against us,” said Munim al-Mindeel, a farmer sitting outside a tent decorated with anti-government banners. “Of course this was bound to happen. All pressure brings explosions in the end.”