ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Iraq’s Shiites, Sunnis and tribes have warned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki against moving on months-long protests in Sunni-majority Anbar province, after he claimed that the site had become an al-Qaeda base and ordered demonstrators to leave before security forces move in.
Protest organizers have vowed to stand up against any crackdown on the demonstrations, which began 11 months ago.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has been critical of the fellow-Shiite premier, warned Maliki against using the protests to try to settle scores against Sunni rivals, or delaying parliament elections scheduled for April.
Any move against the protesters “should not be a prelude to settle sectarian scores with the Sunnis, but must target terrorism only,” Sadr said in a statement. “This matter also should not be a reason for the delay of the upcoming legislative elections, otherwise the matter has consequences,” he warned.
Maliki’s vow to break up the sit-in followed a roadside bombing on Saturday that killed several army officers, including Mohammad al-Khuri, the commander blamed for a deadly crackdown in April on the Anbar protests that killed some 50 people.
Maliki claimed that al-Qaeda elements have infiltrated the Anbar protests and warned that an operation to clear the protest site, which has turned into a virtual tented village of sorts, is imminent.
“The sit-in tents in Anbar are part of a scheme to target the political process and they want a coup against the establishment,” Maliki claimed at a news conference in Karbala.
“It has been revealed that there are terrorists there,” declared the embattled premier, who faces opposition both by the country’s Sunnis and the autonomous Kurds in the north. He claimed that the world was accusing the Iraqi government of being lax on al-Qaeda terrorists, while the militants had set up their own camp in Anbar.
“It has become imperative for us to settle this matter in the next few days and we won’t allow Anbar and its people to be at the mercy of murderers,” Maliki warned.
In the meantime Iyad Allawi, former interim premier and leader of the Iraqiya Sunni bloc, echoed Sadr’s concern over elections.
“Iraq is going toward a decisive and bloody election that could be delayed or even could not be held at all,” he said in a statement.
Allawi doubted that the Iraqi political forces would be able to form a government after the election, especially in the absence of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who has been absent from the scene since suffering a stroke one year ago.
Maliki also announced that a massive security operation – code-named “Revenge of Commander Mohammed” in retaliation for the attack that killed Khuri and other officers – was underway in Anbar against al-Qaeda.
Anti-government protests began in Anbar in January following complaints that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad was neglecting Sunni provinces, depriving them of basic services, investment, government jobs and employment.
While protests ended in the provinces of Saladin, Kirkuk, Diyala and Nineveh, they have continued in Anbar, where Sunni leaders have denied government accusations of al-Qaeda involvement from the very beginning of the demonstrations.
Protest organizers say that Sunni tribes and other residents of Anbar have vowed to stand against any government crackdown on the protesters.
“The tribes and all the people of the province will take up arms in defense of the sit-in at the square, should Maliki, his army and militia target demonstrators,” the organizers said in a statement.
The imam and preacher of Fallujah played down threats of a government crackdown, vowing to stay at the square.
Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, the head of the Dulaim tribe who has been one of the leaders of the protesters, refused to end the protests. But he welcomed inspection by the government to ensure that the site was neither a place hiding al-Qaeda members or weapons.
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