MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi troops fired in the air to disperse Sunni Muslim protesters on Monday as more than two weeks of unrest threatened to unravel Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ’s fragile cross-sectarian government.
Thousands of anti-Maliki protesters have taken to the streets in Sunni strongholds across Iraq, increasing fears that turmoil in neighboring Syria may help tip Iraq back into sectarian violence a year after the last U.S. troops left.
In the northern city of Mosul, troops fired shots above the heads of hundreds of protesters trying to gather in a public square, and in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar, at least 5,000 people demonstrated peacefully.
“Security forces opened fire and used batons to disperse demonstrators,” said Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.
He said one demonstrator had been hit by a security forces vehicle and others had been wounded. Ghanim al-Abid, a protest organizer in Mosul, told Reuters that at least four people had been wounded by security forces.
Demonstrators have blocked a major highway leading to Syria through the remote Anbar desert since late December when Maliki’s forces arrested bodyguards protecting Finance Minister Rafaie al-Esawi, a leading Sunni figure.
The bodyguards’ arrests touched off protests by tens of thousands of Sunnis who feel sidelined by Maliki, a Shi‘ite Islamist who Sunni Iraqis say is amassing power and who they see as deeply under the influence of Shi‘ite, non-Arab Iran.
The demonstrations are increasing pressure on Maliki and on Iraq’s delicate power-sharing deal among Shi‘ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs, which have been locked in a slow-burning crisis since the last American troops left in December 2011.
Maliki survived an attempted vote of no confidence last year and his rivals are now trying to introduce term limits to stop him seeking a third term in parliamentary polls in early 2014.
Lawmakers from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya block, Maliki’s State of Law Shi‘ite alliance, Kurdish parties and other Shi‘ite parties were unable to agree on Sunday on talks in parliament to discuss the demands of protesters.
These range from Maliki’s removal to fixing failing public services and amending anti-terror laws they say are abused to target Sunnis. Maliki has made some concessions such as releasing some detainees, but protests continue daily.
Many Sunni politicians and tribal leaders sense a chance to take advantage of the crisis in neighboring Syria, where mainly Sunni rebels are fighting President Bashar al-Assad, an Iran ally whose minority Alawite sect has roots in Shi‘ite Islam.
Should Assad fall, a Sunni regime could come to power in Syria, weakening the influence of Iran in the region’s Shi‘ite-Sunni power balance. That would embolden Iraq’s own Sunni minority, many of whom feel alienated since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Iraq’s Shi‘ite majority.
The Sunni protests erupted a day after President Jalal Talabani left Iraq for medical treatment following a stroke. A veteran Kurdish statesman, Talabani has long been a moderating influence among Shi‘ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.
Reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad and Sufyan Mashhadani and Mohammed Omar in Mosul; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Alistair Lyon