World Bulletin / News Desk
Chanting "No" to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims protested after Friday prayers in huge rallies against the Shi'ite premier that are raising the spectre of renewed sectarian unrest.
Sunni Muslim outrage erupted in late December over what protesters see as abuses and discrimination against their minority sect since the fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of the country's Shi'ite majority.
Waving the old three-star Iraqi flag from Saddam's era, Sunni clerics, tribal sheikhs and young protesters called for reform of anti-terrorism laws they say security forces abuse to target Sunnis and unfairly detain prisoners.
Maliki has offered concessions, and freed hundreds of prisoners. But Sunni protesters have grown more defiant after soldiers opened fire at a Falluja city rally, killing five people a week ago.
"We will never forget what the army did to us, not only last Friday, but all of their behaviour has been sectarian against us," Omar Al-Jumaili, 51, in Falluja city. "Our new demand; the Iraqi army should leave this area."
The protests are evolving in the most serious test yet for Maliki and his fragile government that splits posts among Shi'ite, Sunni and ethnic Kurds, who were already deadlocked over how to share power for more than a year.
Islamic State of Iraq, still active after years of losses against American soldiers, has also urged Sunni protesters to take up arms.
A year after the last American troops pulled out, sectarian tensions are still raw in the OPEC country, where Shi'ite on Sunni violence killed tens of thousands of people just a few years after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Maliki has appointed a senior Shi'ite figure to talk to demonstrators about demands such as an amnesty law and easing of so-called de-Baathification campaign against former members of Saddam's outlawed Baath party.
Iraq's vice premier Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, said a meeting on Friday with Maliki's Shi'ite National Alliance coalition and Sunni-backed Iraqiya had been positive on proposed reforms.
"We can say there was a progress in this meeting, which may be hasn't happened in the previous ones," he said.
The Sunni unrest broke out just as Baghdad is struggling also with a dispute with the autonomous Kurdistan region over oil and land rights. That has complicated Maliki's attempts to build alliances with Sunni and Kurdish leaders.
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Five people were killed and at least 25 injured in the riot that lasted 45 hours. Two guards who were taken hostage have been released and inmates transferred to other prisons.