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Iraqi Shiite cleric lends support to Sunni protest

Muqtada al-Sadr said protesters have the right to demonstrate.

Muqtada al-Sadr said protesters have the right to demonstrate.

BAGHDAD — A top anti-American Shi’ite cleric lent support Tuesday to Sunni protesters who have been rallying against Iraq’s Shi’ite-dominated central government, increasing pressure on the leadership in Baghdad.

Hard-line religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr told reporters in the Shi’ite holy city of Najaf that the demonstrators have the right to protest as long as they are peaceful.

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He stopped short of calling for a wider uprising like those that have rippled across the region over the past two years, but warned of further unrest if demands on the street are not met.

‘‘Beware of the Arab Spring in Iraq,’’ the firebrand cleric said in a warning to the power-sharing government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite.

Thousands of protesters have been holding rallies in the western desert province of Anbar and other Sunni strongholds for more than a week.

The demonstrations follow the arrest of bodyguards assigned to the Sunni finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, though they tap into deeper Sunni grievances of perceived discrimination by Maliki’s government.

The protesters’ demands include guarantees of better government services and the release of prisoners in Iraqi jails.

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