* Sunnis frustrated with Shi'ite PM Maliki
* Islamist faction pushes demand for Sunni region
* Syria upheaval affecting Iraq's political balance
By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD, Jan 4 Street protests in Iraq's Sunni
Muslim heartland pose a new challenge to Shi'ite Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki as shock waves from the Sunni-led insurgency in
nearby Syria strain his country's fragile political balance.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis have
staged demonstrations, and in Anbar province they have blocked a
highway to Syria in a show of anger against Maliki, whom they
accuse of marginalising their community and monopolising power.
The discontent is real, but the protests are driven by Sunni
Islamist parties bent on carving out an autonomous region akin
to the Kurdish one in the north, Kurdish and Sunni sources say.
They say the Sunni Islamists scent an opportunity to escape
what they see as Shi'ite domination, counting on a victory by
Sunni rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,
whose Alawite minority has its roots in Shi'ite Islam.
Assad's eventual demise would weaken the sway of Shi'ite
Iran, Syria's main regional ally and an influential player in
Iraqi politics. Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and
Turkey have backed the Syrian leader's adversaries.
Heartened by a possible shift in the Sunni-Shi'ite balance
of power in the Middle East, Iraq's Sunnis are giving vent to
the frustrations they have endured since the U.S.-led invasion
overthrew Saddam Hussein and empowered majority Shi'ites.
Some waving Saddam-era Iraqi flags, protesters have echoed
the chants of Arab uprisings that have brought down leaders in
Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen in the past two years.
"We will never relent. Enough of Sunnis living in Iraq like
outsiders. This time it's do or die for us," said Jamal Adham, a
tribal leader from Saddam's former hometown of Tikrit.
Their demands, fuelled by sectarian sentiment, range from
mending crumbling public services to abolishing anti-terrorism
laws they say are used to persecute Iraq's once-dominant Sunnis.
"What's happening is not spontaneous," said Mohammed Tofiq,
spokesman for Kurdish opposition movement Gorran. "The forces
behind the current protests are Sunni political parties."
Senior Sunni sources say the Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP), part
of the Muslim Brotherhood, is the prime mover in a campaign to
create an autonomous Sunni fiefdom, by force if need be.
"Sunnism is our slogan and a region is our goal," senior
cleric Sheikh Taha Hamed al-Dulaimi told demonstrators in Anbar
in a video on his website. "Do not scatter your demands."
The IIP exerts influence through mosques and clerics in
Sunni strongholds such as Anbar province, which was almost
completely controlled by al Qaeda at the height of Iraq's
insurgency in 2005-07 and shares a porous border with Syria.
Militants linked to al Qaeda appear to be regrouping in the
caves and valleys of Anbar, and some are crossing the border to
join Syrian rebels fighting to topple Assad's police state.
The tribes of Anbar were instrumental in subduing al Qaeda
in 2007, making common cause with U.S. troops to fight fellow
Sunnis in what came to be known as the "Anbar Awakening".
Now, Anbar is awakening again, but this time the target is
Maliki - and U.S. forces who once held the ring are long gone.
"Anbar has always had the power to be very influential in
Iraqi politics," said Gareth Stansfield, an Iraq expert at
Exeter University. "This should be of great concern to Maliki."
The protests ignited after Maliki detained the bodyguards of
Sunni Finance Minister Rafaie al-Esawi last month, just hours
after Iraq's Kurdish President Jalal Talabani, seen as a
steadying hand, suffered a stroke and went abroad for treatment.
Iraqi authorities said the bodyguards had confessed to
involvement in assassinations carried out in coordination with
security men employed by Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi.
Hashemi fled into exile a year ago and was later sentenced
to death in absentia for terrorism. Esawi himself was once a
leader of an armed Islamist group, Hamas al-Iraq, in Anbar.
The arrests and alleged confessions of bodyguards of the two
senior Sunni leaders followed a strikingly similar pattern, but
this time round, Maliki is more isolated, analysts say.
One Shi'ite lawmaker said Maliki had planned to target Esawi
for some time and had calculated that it would be easier to
strike now and contain the Sunni backlash than to do it later
when Sunnis might be emboldened by events in Syria.
"Maliki told me he would go after Esawi and his bodyguards
more than a month ago," said the parliamentarian on condition of
anonymity. "He preferred to burst the Sunni bubble, rather than
wait for it to blow up in his face".
So far, Maliki's response has been cautious.
This week he said his patience was wearing thin and warned
he would not tolerate the Sunni rallies indefinitely, but made a
small concession by releasing 11 women detainees and allowing
others to complete their sentences in their home provinces.
That will not appease all the protesters.
The provincial council of the predominantly Sunni Salahuddin
governorate on Thursday re-submitted a request to the electoral
commission to form their own region. Other Sunni-majority
provinces have previously presented similar demands.
Under the constitution drawn up after the U.S.-led invasion,
each province or group of provinces is entitled to create a
federal region if it wins enough votes in a referendum.
"This is the moment when we see whether Maliki has emerged
as the strongman of Iraq," Stansfield said. "Either he enforces
a centralised government on Iraq or allows federalism to be the
organising principle of governance across the country.
"The question is whether it's done after fighting or instead
The central government in Baghdad is already at odds with
the Kurdish region. Their long-running feud over land and oil
rights recently escalated into a military build-up in the
oil-rich territory along their contested internal boundary.
The Kurds and other rivals of Maliki are likely to use the
Sunni protests to pile pressure on the Shi'ite leader without
necessarily jumping on board, analysts and politicians say.
Both Kurdish President Masoud Barzani and influential
Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr have voiced support for the
protesters in Anbar and elsewhere, as long as they drop
sectarian slogans and stop glorifying Saddam's Baath party.
Sunnis are united against Maliki, but many are wary of
hardliners who they fear might revive the kind of inter-communal
conflict that previously drove Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Sheikh Hameed Turki al-Shook, a senior Sunni tribesman in
Anbar, said: "The demand to create the regions is not ours and
those working to spread these ideas do not represent us."