Tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims rallied on Friday in several Iraqi cities to protest what they describe as unfair treatment by the country's Shiite-led government, extending concerns over rising sectarian tension in the country.
Sunnis have staged mass protests since late December. They are demanding that Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki step down, and are calling for the release of thousands of Sunnis they say were rounded up arbitrarily under the guise of counter-terrorism regulations. They also want authorities to rescind policies they say discriminate against Sunnis.
Protestors had hoped to move their demonstrations from predominantly Sunni provinces to Baghdad on Friday, but they backed off that plan after the government rejected their request and imposed tough security measures. Government security forces blocked roads leading from Sunni-dominated provinces and sealed off all Sunni neighborhoods.
In the western cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, former insurgent strongholds, demonstrators blocked the main highway to Jordan and Syria to perform Friday noon prayers. Others gathered in main squares in the northern cities of Samarra, Mosul and Kirkuk. Local residents rallied outside a prominent Sunni mosque in the Baghdad.
"Where is the partnership you are talking about? Sunnis are only seeing genocide and marginalization," shouted cleric Saad al-Fayadh in front of thousands of worshippers in Ramadi. His speech was interrupted many times by demonstrators who pumped their fists in the air and shouted: "Allahu Akbar" or "God is great."
The cleric accused the Shiite-led government of letting Iranian influence grow in Baghdad, saying Iranian pilgrims can travel to the country easily and Iranian-backed Shiite militias have marched in the streets.
"Am I foreigner? Are we second-class citizens? Are we your enemies? We are Anbar, Kirkuk, Ninevah and Salahuddin," he said, referring to Sunni provinces in western and northern Iraq.
Some protesters vowed to yet take their rallies to the capital by holding banners read: "Baghdad, be patient," and "Baghdad, not yet."
To ease tension, the government formed a committee to consider the Sunnis' demands. It has released about 3,000 detainees and is working on clearing thousands of Saddam Hussein-era officials to allow them to take their pensions or sell properties that were blocked after 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Hours before Friday prayers, three mortar rounds landed in a military base in Fallujah, but there was no word on casualties, according to police and army officers. The officers spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to release information.
Last month, at least five stone-throwing protesters were killed when soldiers opened fire in Fallujah. The government has promised to investigate the incident, which marked the first time protesters had been killed in the unrest. Two other soldiers were killed the same day, and two more were shot to death a day later in apparent retaliation for the protesters' deaths.
The advocacy group Human Rights Watch this week pressed the Iraqi government to complete its probe of the Fallujah shooting and ensure that those responsible for any unlawful killing are prosecuted. The group said it had interviewed witnesses who claimed that the protesters were throwing rocks, but were not otherwise armed and did not threaten soldiers' lives.
Also Friday, thousands of the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's followers marched in the streets of Baghdad's eastern Sadr City neighborhood to show support for Shiites in Bahrain as they mark the second anniversary of the anti-government uprising in the Gulf nation. They held flags from both countries and banners that read: "Yes, Yes for Bahrain," and "Iraqi people support the Bahraini people."
Nearly 60 people have died in two years of upheaval in the kingdom. Bahrain's majority Shiites are pushing for a greater political voice on the Sunni-ruled island.
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed reporting.
Follow Sinan Salaheddin on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sinansm