Iraq crisis stirs protests in Sunni strongholds

SAMARRA, Iraq Fri Dec 23, 2011 11:58am EST

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SAMARRA, Iraq (Reuters) - Several thousand Iraqis in Sunni Muslim strongholds protested on Friday against Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, responding to his moves against two Sunni leaders and taking to the streets a day after fatal bombings hit the capital Baghdad.

Maliki this week sought Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi's arrest on terrorism charges and moved to fire a Sunni deputy. On Thursday at least 72 people were killed in Baghdad by bombings in mainly Shi'ite neighborhoods.

The events threaten to splinter Iraq's fragile sectarian and ethnic faultlines and highlight the risk of the country tumbling into the kind of bloody slaughter that a few years ago led the OPEC oil-producer to the edge of civil war.

After Friday prayers, with Sunni imams warning Maliki was seeking to foment sectarian divisions, protesters were on the streets of Sunni-dominated Samarra, Ramadi, Baiji and Qaim, many waving banners in support of Hashemi, and criticizing the government.

"The charges against Hashemi were orchestrated behind closed doors. Maliki is trying to remove Sunnis from power to get a tight grip, like as a new dictator of Iraq," said Ahmed al-Abbasi, a+ protester from Samarra.

The crisis could scuttle a delicate power-sharing agreement that splits posts among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders just days after the last American troops withdrew nearly nine years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.

"What's happening in Iraq is settling political scores," Iyad Allawi, Maliki's predecessor and head of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, told al-Arabiya television.

An emergency session in parliament among leaders of political blocs to debate the crisis was cancelled on Friday.

For many Sunnis who feel marginalized by the rise of Iraq's Shi'ite majority since the fall of Saddam, Maliki's measures have deepened worries the Shi'ite leader is making a power grab to consolidate Shi'ite power.

"Hashemi, fear not, with our blood we support you," one banner read in Samarra.

Hashemi denies charges his office ran an assassination squad. After the interior ministry broadcast what it said were confessions from Hashemi's bodyguards, the Sunni leader left for semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, where he is unlikely to be handed over to central government authorities.

U.S. DIPLOMACY, REGIONAL WORRIES

Baghdad was quiet on Friday with many people deciding to stay off the streets following Thursday's string of bombings, which included a suicide bomber, driving an ambulance, who detonated his explosives outside a government office.

The last American troops left Iraq over the weekend, nearly nine years after the invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam. Many Iraqis fear a return to sectarian violence without a U.S. military buffer.

U.S. officials are trying to stay engaged in Iraq. Vice President Joe Biden called Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to support efforts to resolve tensions and Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno met with Maliki on Thursday.

U.S. intelligence agencies had warned that security gains in Iraq could degenerate into sectarian violence after the withdrawal.

Turmoil in Iraq would have wider consequences in a region where a crisis in neighboring Syria is becoming increasingly sectarian, and Shi'ite Iran, Turkey and Sunni Arab Gulf nations are all positioning for more influence.

Iraqi Shi'ite leaders worry a shift to a hardline Sunni government in Damascus if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad falls would unbalance their country's own delicate sectarian makeup, or spill instability over the border.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Patrick Markey and Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Matthew Jones)

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