BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq's prime minister said Saturday that a Syrian-style revolt against the government "will not happen" in his country, despite mounting street protests by minority Sunnis against his Shiite-led rule.
In Syria, President Bashar Assad, a follower of a Shiite offshoot of Islam, is battling a nearly 2-year-old Sunni-led uprising that morphed into a civil war in response to a brutal government crackdown.
In Iraq, Sunnis complaining of official discrimination have staged weekly anti-government rallies since December, including on Friday when tens of thousands blocked a major highway west of the capital Baghdad.
Protesters have called for the cancelation of anti-terrorism laws and government policies they believe target Sunnis unfairly, and have called for the ouster of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Al-Maliki told the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya on Saturday that he is ready to engage with the protesters to some extent. However, he alleged that some were trying to exploit the protests, including the al-Qaida terror network and supporters of Saddam Hussein, the late dictator ousted during the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
"There are some people who are planning to transfer the battle from Syria to Iraq, whether they are locals, the al-Qaida organization and (Saddam's) Baath party," al-Maliki said. "These people are working and planning ... and they have been doing it for some time."
Earlier this week, an al-Qaida front in Iraq urged Sunnis to take up arms against the government, though protest organizers later distanced themselves from the group and called for peaceful marches.
Al-Maliki said regional governments were also involved in alleged efforts to destabilize Iraq, but did not name any.
"What happened in Syria will not happen in Iraq," the prime minister said. "In Iraq, there is freedom. There are no detained journalists or politicians. There are parties and elections."
Critics have accused al-Maliki of systematically sidelining political opponents and squashing dissent, a charge his supporters deny.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report this week that Iraq's leadership has used "draconian measures against opposition politicians, detainees, demonstrators and journalists, effectively squeezing the space for independent civil society and political freedoms in Iraq."
In another development, hackers broke into al-Maliki's official website Saturday, calling him an "oppressor" and comparing him to the embattled Syrian president.
The statement by "Team Kuwait Hackers" told the Iraqi leader: "You want to be like Bashar Assad ... Bashar is over."
The message was accompanied by a picture of wailing black-clad women in mourning. It was up for several hours until the site was taken down.
Telephone calls to al-Maliki's office went unanswered.
Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.