BAGHDAD — 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 Shi’ite-led government, extending concerns over rising sectarian tension in the country.
Sunnis have staged mass protests since late December. They are demanding that Shi’ite 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 counterterrorism regulations.
They also want authorities to rescind policies they say discriminate against Sunnis.
Protesters 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,’’ cleric Saad al-Fayadh shouted 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 Shi’ite-led government of letting Iranian influence grow in Baghdad, saying Iranian pilgrims can travel to the country easily and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have marched in the streets.
To ease tension, the government formed a committee to consider the Sunnis’ demands.