Large, noisy demonstrations against Iraq's government flared for the third time in less than a week Wednesday in Iraq's western Anbar province, raising the prospect of a fresh bout of unrest in a onetime al Qaeda stronghold on Syria's doorstep.
The rallies are echoes of the Arab Spring. Protesters chanted "the people want the downfall of the regime," a slogan that has rippled across the region and was fulfilled in Tunisia and Egypt. Other rallying cries blasted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government as illegitimate and warned that protesters "will cut off any hand that touches us."
While the demonstrators' tenacious show of force could signal the start of a more populist Sunni opposition movement, it risks widening the deep and increasingly bitter rifts with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. If left unresolved, those disputes could lead to a new eruption of sectarian violence.
The car bombings and other indiscriminate attacks that still plague Iraq are primarily the work of Sunni extremists. Vast Anbar province was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and later the birthplace of a Sunni militia that helped American and Iraqi forces fight al Qaeda.
Today, al Qaeda is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels try to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad. Protesters turned out Wednesday near the provincial capital Ramadi, 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 blocked the main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria, just as they did at another protest Sunday.
Wednesday's protesters held banners demanding that Sunni rights be respected and calling for the release of Sunni prisoners in Iraqi jails. 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.
He appeared before Wednesday's rally and was held aloft by the crowds. Al-Issawi addressed the rally after 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 al-Maliki's government.
Many Sunnis see the arrest of the finance minister's guards as the latest move by the Shiite prime minister against their sect and other perceived political opponents.