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New protests in Sunni stronghold

Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi is carried by supporters.

Hadi Mizban/associated Press

Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi is carried by supporters.

RAMADI, Iraq — Large, noisy demonstrations against Iraq’s government flared for the third time in less than a week Wednesday in Iraq’s western Anbar province, raising the prospect of a fresh bout of unrest in a onetime Al Qaeda stronghold on Syria’s doorstep.

The rallies echo the Arab Spring. Protesters chanted ‘‘the people want the downfall of the regime,’’ a slogan that has rippled across the region and was fulfilled in Tunisia and Egypt. Other rallying cries blasted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government as illegitimate and warned that protesters ‘‘will cut off any hand that touches us.’’

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While the demonstrators’ tenacious show of force could signal the start of a more populist Sunni opposition movement, it risks widening the deep and increasingly bitter rifts with the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad. If left unresolved, those disputes could lead to a new eruption of sectarian violence.

The car bombings and other indiscriminate attacks that still plague Iraq are primarily the work of Sunni extremists. Vast Anbar province was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 US-led invasion, and later the birthplace of a Sunni militia that helped American and Iraqi forces fight Al Qaeda.

Today, Al Qaeda is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels try to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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.

Issawi’s case is exacerbating tensions between the Shi’ite-dominated government that rose to power following the 2003 US-led invasion and Iraq’s Sunnis, who see the detentions as politically motivated.

‘‘The danger is that the revolution in Syria is perpetuating Sunni opportunism and overconfidence in Iraq,’’ said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. ‘‘Al-Maliki may have sparked a Sunni tribal movement that will attempt to harness and capitalize on the revolutionary spirit,’’ he said.

Protesters turned out Wednesday near the provincial capital Ramadi. The city and nearby Fallujah were the scenes of some of the deadliest fighting between US troops and Iraqi insurgents.

Demonstrators blocked the main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria, just as they did at another protest Sunday.

Wednesday’s protesters held banners demanding that Sunni rights be respected and calling for the release of Sunni prisoners in Iraqi jails. ‘‘We warn the government not to draw the country into sectarian conflict,’’ read one. Another declared: ‘‘We are not a minority.’’

Issawi, the finance minister, addressed the rally after arriving in a long convoy of black SUVs protected by heavily armed bodyguards. He condemned last week’s raid on his office and rattled off a list of grievances aimed at Maliki’s government.

‘‘Injustice, marginalization, discrimination, and double standards, as well as the politicization of the judiciary system and a lack of respect for partnership, the law, and the constitution . . . have all turned our neighborhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks,’’ he declared.

Large numbers of protesters also took to the streets in Samarra, a Sunni-dominated town 60 miles north of Baghdad, according to Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi.

Many Sunnis see the arrest of the finance minister’s guards as the latest in a series of moves by the Shi’ite prime minister against them and other perceived political opponents.

Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, another top-ranking Sunni politician, is now living in exile in Turkey after being handed multiple death sentences for allegedly running death squads — a charge he denies.

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