* Tens of thousands protest in Falluja, Ramadi, Mosul,
* Sunnis accuse PM of marginalising them, being influenced
* Protests fuel concerns Syria could further destabilise
By Kamal Naama and Raheem Salman
RAMADI, Iraq, Dec 28 Thousands of protesters
from Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority poured onto the streets after
Friday prayers in a show of force against Shi'ite Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki, keeping up a week-long blockade of a major
Around 60,000 people blocked the main road through Falluja,
50 km (30 miles) west of the capital, setting fire to the flag
of Shi'ite Iran and shouting "out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free"
and "Maliki you coward, don't take your advice from Iran".
Many Sunnis, whose community dominated Iraq until the fall
of Saddam Hussein in 2003, accuse Maliki of refusing to share
power and of being under the sway of its non-Arab neighbour.
"We will not leave this place until all our demands are
fulfilled, including the toppling of the Maliki government,"
said 31-year-old Omar al-Dahal at a protest in Ramadi, where
more than 100,000 protesters blocked the same highway as it
leads to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.
Activists' demands include an end to the marginalisation of
Sunnis, the abolition of anti-terrorism laws they say are used
to target them, and the release of detainees.
Protests flared last week in Anbar province, the Sunni
stronghold in western Iraq where demonstrators have mounted the
blockades, after troops loyal to Maliki, who is from the Shi'ite
majority, detained bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.
Demonstrations were also held in the northern city of Mosul
and in Samarra, where protesters chanted "the people want to
bring down the regime", echoing the slogan used in popular
revolts that ousted leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
The protests are likely to add to concerns the civil war in
neighbouring Syria, where majority Sunnis are fighting to topple
a ruler backed by Shi'ite Iran, will drive Iraq back to the
sectarian slaughter of 2005-7.
Militants linked to al Qaeda appear to be joining the ranks
of Syrian rebels across the border and regrouping in Anbar,
which was almost entirely controlled by militants at the height
of Iraq's insurgency.
Security forces did not move to break up the protests, but
prevented people from other provinces from heading to Anbar to
join the rallies there.
Speaking at a "reconciliation" conference broadcast on
television, Maliki called for dialogue.
"It is not acceptable to express something by blocking
roads, inciting sedition and sectarianism, killing, or blowing
the trumpet of war and dividing Iraq," he said.
A masked protester who refused to give his name recalled the
role of Anbar's tribes, first in fighting U.S. troops before
allying with them to drive militants out - turning on fellow
Sunni al Qaeda because of its indiscriminate use of violence.
"Just as we terrified the Americans with this mask, and
kicked al Qaeda out, we will terrify the government with it," he
Highlighting the increasingly regional dimension, protesters
in Falluja raised pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip
Erdogan, who has lined up against Syrian President Bashar
al-Assad and has sparred increasingly often with Maliki.
In Iraq's Shi'ite south, a small anti-Erdogan protest was
held in the holy city of Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) from Baghdad.
Sunni complaints against Maliki grew louder a week ago
following the arrest of Finance Minister Rafaie al-Esawi's
bodyguards hours after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd
seen as a steadying influence, was flown abroad for medical
For many, that was reminiscent of a move to arrest Sunni
Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi a year ago, just when U.S.
troops had withdrawn. Hashemi fled into exile and was
subsequently sentenced to death in absentia.
Maliki has sought to divide his rivals and strengthen
alliances in Iraq's complex political landscape before
provincial elections next year and a parliamentary vote in 2014.
A face-off between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces over
disputed oilfields in the north has been seen as a possible way
of rallying Sunni Arab support behind the prime minister.