UPDATE 1-Iraqi Sunnis stage big anti-government rallies

Kamal Naama and Raheem Salman
Reuters Middle East

* Tens of thousands protest in Falluja, Ramadi, Mosul,

Samarra

* Sunnis accuse PM of marginalising them, being influenced

by Iran

* Protests fuel concerns Syria could further destabilise

Iraq

RAMADI, Iraq, Dec 28 (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters

from Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority poured onto the streets after

Friday prayers in a show of force against Shi'ite Prime Minister

Nuri al-Maliki, keeping up a week-long blockade of a major

highway.

Around 60,000 people blocked the main road through Falluja,

50 km (30 miles) west of the capital, setting fire to the flag

of Shi'ite Iran 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 Maliki of refusing to share

power and of being under the sway of its non-Arab neighbour.

"We will not leave this place until all our demands are

fulfilled, including the toppling of the Maliki government,"

said 31-year-old Omar al-Dahal at a protest in Ramadi, where

more than 100,000 protesters blocked the same highway as it

leads to neighbouring Syria and Jordan.

Activists' demands include an end to the marginalisation of

Sunnis, the abolition of anti-terrorism laws they say are used

to target them, and the release of detainees.

Protests flared last week in Anbar province, the Sunni

stronghold in western Iraq where demonstrators have mounted the

blockades, after troops loyal to Maliki, who is from the Shi'ite

majority, detained bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.

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.

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 Shi'ite Iran, will drive Iraq back to the

sectarian slaughter of 2005-7.

Militants linked to al Qaeda appear to be joining the ranks

of Syrian rebels across the border and regrouping in Anbar,

which was almost entirely controlled by militants at the height

of Iraq's insurgency.

Security forces did not move to break up the protests, but

prevented people from other provinces from heading to Anbar to

join the rallies there.

REGIONAL DIMENSION

Speaking at a "reconciliation" conference broadcast on

television, Maliki called for dialogue.

"It is not acceptable to express something by blocking

roads, inciting sedition and sectarianism, killing, or blowing

the trumpet of war and dividing Iraq," he said.

A masked protester who refused to give his name recalled the

role of Anbar's tribes, first in fighting U.S. troops before

allying with them to drive militants out - turning on fellow

Sunni al Qaeda because of its indiscriminate use of violence.

"Just as we terrified the Americans with this mask, and

kicked al Qaeda out, we will terrify the government with it," he

said.

Highlighting the increasingly regional dimension, protesters

in Falluja raised pictures of Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip

Erdogan, who has lined up against Syrian President Bashar

al-Assad and has sparred increasingly often with Maliki.

In Iraq's Shi'ite south, a small anti-Erdogan protest was

held in the holy city of Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) from Baghdad.

Sunni complaints against 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 a year ago, just when U.S.

troops had withdrawn. Hashemi fled into exile and was

subsequently sentenced to death in absentia.

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.