18 January 2013
The Sunni protests sweeping Iraq show no sign of stopping.
For three weeks, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets in prominently Sunni provinces to shout against the government led by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
In Mosul, police have fired warning shots over protesters' heads. In Anbar Province, protesters have blocked the main highway linking Iraq to Jordan for days, causing Baghdad to shut the border crossing to Jordan indefinitely out of security concerns.
The protests are the largest wave of Sunni unrest since U.S. troops withdrew a year ago and pose a major challenge for Maliki. But the demonstrators' spiraling list of demands has left the government uncertain how to contain the crisis.
The protests began in late December when police arrested the bodyguards of a leading Sunni politician, Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, on terrorism charges. Sunnis saw the arrests as part of a pattern of harassment against members of the religious minority and took to the streets to demand the 10 bodyguards be released.
That demand quickly grew to include an end to all arrests under Iraq's terrorism law and the freeing of all detained under it. The law, passed in 2005, allows the detention of people on suspicion of terrorism without requiring courts to reveal who makes the accusations. Sunnis say it is regularly used against them.
One protester in Anbar Province, who did not provide his name, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, "The people have no choice but to demonstrate and protest against the unfair and sectarian application of the law against terrorism."
Baghdad released 178 prisoners jailed under the law on January 14, bringing the total number freed in the last week to 335. Many were released after a government review found that their jail terms had expired or insufficient evidence had been found to prosecute them.
Sunni Anger Explodes
But the demands do not stop there. They also include an end to Iraq's de-Ba'athification program, which excludes former high members of toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's party from public life. And protesters have various other grievances over poor government services and corruption.
Basim al-Shaikh, an editor with the national Iraqi newspaper "Al-Dustur," says the protests are driven by anger over what many Sunnis see as second-class status in Iraq, despite the fact that Sunni parties participate in Maliki's ruling coalition and hold several important posts.
He says the anger is directed at established Sunni politicians as well as the government in general, because they are perceived to be out of touch with the people.
"These demonstrations pull the rug out from under the feet of the politicians because they charge the politicians with failing to respond to the social and economic demands of the people," Shaikh says. "The protesters say they are expressing the real voice of the people and that has the potential to rearrange the political map in the country."