RAMADI, Iraq (AP) — Thousands of Iraqi demonstrators massed in a Sunni-dominated province west of Baghdad Wednesday, determined to keep up the pressure on a Shiite-led government that many accuse of trying to marginalize them.
It was the third major protest in less than a week in Anbar, Iraq's largest province, once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that erupted after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The unrest is part of a larger picture of sectarian conflicts that threaten the stability of the country, a year after the last U.S. troops left.
The demonstrations follow the arrest last week of 10 bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from Anbar and is one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials. The case is exacerbating tensions with Iraq's Sunnis, who see the detentions as politically motivated.
Protesters turned out Wednesday near the provincial capital Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. The city and nearby Fallujah were the scenes of some of the deadliest fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents.
Demonstrators gathered along a highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria. They held banners demanding that Sunni rights be respected and calling for the release of Sunni prisoners in Iraqi jails. "We warn the government not to draw the country into sectarian conflict," read one. Another declared: "We are not a minority."
Al-Issawi made an appearance at the rally, arriving in a long convoy of black SUVs protected by heavily armed bodyguards. He condemned last week's raid on his office and rattled off a list of grievances aimed at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
"Injustice, marginalization, discrimination and double standards, as well as the politicization of the judiciary system and a lack of respect for partnership, law and constitution ... have all turned our neighborhoods in Baghdad into huge prisons surrounded by concrete blocks," he declared.