Tens of thousands of protesters from Iraq’s Sunni Muslim minority poured on to the streets after Friday prayers in a show of force against Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, keeping up a week-old blockade of a highway.
About 60,000 people blocked the main road through the city of Falluja, 50km west of the capital, setting fire to the Iranian flag and shouting “out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free” and “Maliki you coward, don’t take your advice from Iran”.
Many Sunnis, whose community dominated Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, accuse Mr Maliki of refusing to share power and of favouring Iraq’s Shia, non-Arab neighbour Iran.
Protests flared last week after troops loyal to Mr Maliki, who is from the Shia majority, detained bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.
Activists demands include an end to the marginalisation of Sunnis, the abolition of antiterrorism laws they say are used to target them, and the release of detainees.
“I came to Falluja to express my support for their demands. I hope we proceed to Baghdad,” said 48-year-old Faiq al-Awazi.
Demonstrations were also held in the northern city of Mosul and in Samarra, where protesters chanted “the people want to bring down the regime”, echoing the slogan used in popular revolts that ousted leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
Speaking at a “reconciliation” conference broadcast on television, Mr Maliki said: “It is not acceptable to express something by blocking roads, inciting sedition and sectarianism, killing, or blowing the trumpet of war and dividing Iraq.”
The protests are likely to add to concerns the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where majority Sunnis are fighting to topple a ruler backed by Shia Iran, will drive Iraq back to the sectarian slaughter of 2005-07.
Militants linked to al-Qaeda appear to be regrouping in Anbar and to be joining rebel ranks across the border in Syria.
Protesters in the city of Ramadi in Anbar province raised pictures of Turkish prime minister Tayyip Erdogan, who has lined up against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and has sparred increasingly often with Mr Maliki.
In Iraq’s Shia south, a small anti-Erdogan protest was held in the holy city of Najaf, 160km from Baghdad.
Sunni complaints against Mr Maliki grew louder a week ago following the arrest of finance minister Rafaie al-Esawi’s bodyguards hours after Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd seen as a steadying influence, was flown abroad for medical care.
For many, that was reminiscent of a move to arrest Sunni vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi one year ago, just when US troops had withdrawn. Mr Hashemi fled into exile and was subsequently sentenced to death in absentia.
Mr Maliki has sought to divide his rivals and strengthen alliances in Iraq’s complex political landscape before provincial elections next year and a parliamentary vote in 2014.
A face-off between the Iraqi army and Kurdish forces over disputed oilfields in the north has been seen as a possible way of rallying Sunni Arab support behind the prime minister.