Tens of thousands of people have staged protests in western Iraq, blocking a highway leading to Syria and Jordan, against what they have termed the "sectarian" policies of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The protesters, including local officials, religious and tribal leaders, turned out on Sunday to demonstrate against the arrest of nine guards of Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi. Their arrest on terrorism charges has sparked a call from Essawi for Maliki to quit or be removed.
"We are gathered today not for Essawi and his bodyguards, but to change the course of this sectarian government and to overthrow Maliki's government," Hikmat Iyada, provincial councillor for Anbar, told the protesters on Sunday.
More than 2,000 Sunni demonstrators took to the streets in the cities of Ramadi, the capital of Sunni province of Anbar, and about 10,000 appeared in Falluja on Sunday in response to a call for a civil disobedience to protest what they called the sidelining of Sunnis in Iraqi politics.
A letter from Sheikh Abdul Malek al-Saadi, a leading Sunni cleric in Anbar, was read at the protest in which he called for Shias in the government to respect Sunni officials and the minority's entire population in Iraq.
Maliki was also condemned in a separate statement issued by fugitive vice-president, Tareq al-Hashemi, who praised the demonstration. "Maliki is a prisoner of a sick mind, obsessed with power," said Hashemi, who has been handed multiple death sentences in absentia for charges he insists are politically motivated.
"The Islamic and Arab world looks at him now as the sponsor of the Safavid [Iranian] project in Iraq." Hashemi also called for a no confidence in the prime minister, accusing Maliki of aiming "to get rid of his opponents". He said the current situation has reached a "deadlock".
The Iraqi prime minister allegedly ordered for the arrest of the finance minister’s bodyguards on charges of terrorism on Thursday, in a move that has reignited a political crisis.Maliki has denied the allegations and expressed "astonishment" at "linking the issue of the detainees with political disputes" and spoke out against pulling "the whole country toward sectarian strife".
The deepening political crisis seems to be getting worse as President Jalal Talabani, who has acted as mediator in the past, has been rushed to Germany for medical treatment after suffering a stroke last week. Talabani also played a key role in mediating the growing dispute over oil between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region.