Tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis angry over perceived second-class treatment by the Shiite-led government massed along a major western highway and elsewhere in the country Friday for the largest protests yet in a week of demonstrations.
The well-organized rallies, which took place after traditional Friday prayers, underscore the strength of a tenacious protest movement that appears to be gathering support among Sunnis, whose sense of grievance has been increased by arrests and prosecutions that they feel underscore Shiite political dominance.
The biggest of Friday's demonstrations took place on a main road to Jordan and Syria that runs through the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in the Sunni-dominated desert province of Anbar, west of Baghdad.
Several thousand protesters took to the streets in Fallujah, holding aloft placards declaring the day a "Friday of honor." Some carried old Iraqi flags used during the era of former dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated government was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago.
Others raised the current flag, which was approved in 2008. A few hoisted the banner of the predominantly Sunni rebels across the border who are fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Massive crowds also blocked the highway in Ramadi, further to the west, to demand "fair treatment" from the government and the release of prisoners, said Dhari Arkan, the deputy governor of Anbar province.
"The people have demands that must be met by the Baghdad government immediately or these demonstrations will spread nationwide," Arkan said. "The people can bring down the regime, just like what happened in other Arab Spring countries."
In the northern city of Mosul, abound 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets to denounce what they called the sidelining of Sunnis in Iraq and to demand the release of Sunni prisoners. As in protests earlier in the week, demonstrators there chanted the Arab Spring slogan: "The people want the downfall of the regime."
Thousands likewise turned out in the northern Sunni towns of Tikrit and Samarra, where they were joined by lawmakers and provincial officials, said Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi.
At a conference in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned against a return to sectarian conflict and cautioned that the country is close to returning to the "dark days when people were killed because of their names or identities."
He also used the occasion to take a jab at the protesters in Anbar.
"Nations that look for peace, love and reconstruction must choose civilized ways to express themselves. It is not acceptable to express opinions by blocking the roads, encouraging sectarianism, threating to launch wars and dividing Iraq," he said. "Instead we need to talk, to listen to each other and to agree ... to end our differences."
The demonstrations follow the arrest last week of 10 bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from Anbar and is one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials.
While the detentions triggered the latest bout of unrest, the demonstrations also tap into deeper Sunni fears that they are being marginalized by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Although the government includes some Sunni Arabs and Kurdish officials as part of a power-sharing agreement, it draws the bulk of its support from Iraq's majority Shiites.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, another top-ranking Sunni politician, is now living in exile in Turkey after being handed multiple death sentences earlier this year for allegedly running death squads — a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Sunni-dominated Anbar province has been the scene of several large demonstrations and road blockages since last Saturday. The vast territory was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Al-Qaida is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels in Syria.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Adam Schreck contributed reporting from Baghdad.