BAGHDAD Thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites rallied in the restive mainly Sunni province of Diyala on Thursday, demanding the provincial council retract its declaration of autonomy as Washington officially ended its war in Iraq.
Demands for more provincial power have simmered for years in Iraq, split by ethnic, sectarian and tribal tensions. But the Diyala push and an autonomy drive from the mainly Sunni Salahuddin province threaten to stir tensions as the last U.S. troops withdraw before December 31.
Police used batons and water cannon to disperse around 2,500 mainly Shi'ite protesters who demonstrated for a second day in front of the provincial council in Baquba, Diyala's main city.
"If the local government insists on its situation, we will form a transitional government ... and cancel the decision of the previous council, particularly declaring Diyala an independent region," said Jaafar Sadiq, a tribal sheikh as he stood outside the council with protesters.
Some protesters tried to storm the council headquarters, while others climbed to the roof of the building and raised green and black Shi'ite flags. Local authorities placed security forces on alert for a possible outbreak of violence.
Members of the mainly Sunni Arab-controlled council declared autonomy on Monday for Diyala, an al Qaeda hotspot comprised of a volatile mix of Sunni, Shi'ite, Kurds and Turkmen.
A long-standing dispute between the minority Kurds in the north and Arab Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad over land, oil and power is considered a potential flashpoint for future conflict after American troops depart. Some parts of Diyala are disputed territories between the Arabs and Kurds.
Demonstrators had streamed into Baquba from all over the province, some carrying Iraqi and green and black Shi'ite flags, photos of Prophet Mohammed's grandson Imam Hussein, and banners with "No for separation, no for region."
Others were chanting "Sunnis and Shi'ite are brothers and we will not sell this country."
"Those who declared this province an autonomous region represent only one sect, but there are many sects and ethnics in Diyala and no one asked all these people what do they want," said Sheikh Hussein al-Taai, head of Khalis tribal council.
Autonomy would give the province more power over finances, administration and laws, and an upper hand in supervising public property, which could loosen Baghdad's grip.
Dulair Hassan, a Kurdish Diyala council member, said Sunni council members had agreed to hand over the district of Khanaqin to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in exchange for votes from Kurdish council members in favour of autonomy for Diyala.
Khanaqin, 140 km (100 miles) northeast of Baghdad, is one of the areas disputed by Arabs and Kurds in Diyala. Minority Kurds in the north have enjoyed semi-autonomy for years since Western powers imposed a no-fly zone after the 1991 Gulf War.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who took part in writing the constitution in 2005, supports powerful central government.
In both public pronouncements and in private meetings with tribal leaders, his government has tried to quiet the autonomy movement, partly out of concern it could lead to instability as the U.S. troops withdraw.
While bombings and other attacks have ebbed following the sectarian slaughter that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war in 2006-07, violence has remained stubbornly high in Diyala as Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other groups wage turf wars.
Only around 4,000 U.S. soldiers now remain in Iraq and they are scheduled to withdraw before the end of the year, leaving the country still facing a weakened, but stubborn insurgency and political uncertainty.
(Writing by Suadad al-Salhy; Editing by Rania El Gamal and Sophie Hares)