BAGHDAD — Tens of thousands of Sunni protesters blocked a highway in western Iraq on Friday, as an Al Qaeda- affiliated group called on Sunnis to take up arms against the Shi’ite-led government.
At a time of mounting sectarian tensions, minority Sunnis complain of official discrimination and the arrests of bodyguards of a senior Sunni politician in December that sparked weekly protests.
The rallies on Friday took place in Fallujah and Ramadi, cities that straddle the highway through Anbar Province. The province was a former Al Qaeda stronghold that saw some of the fiercest fighting against US forces during the Iraq war.
Protesters also marched in Baghdad and Samarra. The turnout appeared to be among the largest since protests began in December.
In Fallujah and Ramadi, demonstrators performed Muslim noon prayers, the highlight of the religious week, on the highway from Iraq to Jordan.
Last week, five protesters and two Iraqi soldiers were killed in clashes in Fallujah, and demonstrators held up pictures of the dead on Friday.
Sunni cleric Abdul-Hameed Jadoua told the crowd that “the blood of the martyrs was shed so that the dignity of our Iraq and our tribes will be restored.”
He demanded that soldiers be put on trial for killing protesters and said the army must stay out of the area. “From this place, we tell the government that we do not want to see a soldier from now on, not only in Fallujah, but in all its suburbs and [surrounding] villages,” he said.
The cleric appeared to be rebuffing a call to arms. “I tell the young people that we do appreciate your zeal ... but you should be disciplined and adhere to the directives of the clerics and tribal leaders so that we act in a reasonable way,” he said.
Al Qaeda has expressed support for the protests. On Friday, an Al Qaeda-affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq, called on Sunnis to resort to violence against the government.
Sunnis can either bow to Shi’ites or take up arms and restore “dignity and freedom,” said spokesman Mohammed al-Adnani in an audio statement on the group’s website.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has suggested that Al Qaeda and members of Hussein’s ousted regime are involved in the demonstrations.
Organizers said they have no links to Al Qaeda. “This organization represents only itself and it does not represent us,” Saeed Humaim, a leading activist in Ramadi, said of the Islamic State of Iraq.
Humaim said organizers also asked demonstrators to not raise Saddam Hussein-era national flags. Under Hussein, toppled by the US-led invasion in 2003, Sunnis enjoyed special privileges while Kurds and Shi’ites were often persecuted.
During previous protests, many had waved Saddam Hussein-era flags, but there were fewer on Friday. Humaim said organizers did not want to give the government an opportunity to smear protesters as Saddam Hussein loyalists.