BAGHDAD (AP) — Shiite demonstrators took to the streets in Iraq's capital Saturday to show support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which has faced angry protests in Sunni provinces in a sign of growing sectarian tensions.
Under tight security measures, about 2,000 people took part in the rally held in downtown Baghdad, some holding pictures of the Shiite prime minister. They reject Sunni calls to abolish a tough anti-terrorism law and another law banning former members of the disbanded Baath party from holding government jobs.
Some of the protesters raised banners reading "The aim of Anbar protests is to divide Iraq," and "We support al-Maliki." Others held aloft posters denouncing fugitive Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashemi as a "lord of sectarianism."
Members of Iraq's Sunni minority, in the western province of Anbar and other Sunni parts of the country, have been holding large demonstrations for the past three weeks to protest what they call discrimination by the Shiite-led government.
The Sunni protests began last month following the arrests of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials. He has since become a rallying point for the demonstrators, who are angry over perceived second-class treatment by the Shiite-led government.
Also on Saturday, dozens of people held a similar rally in the mostly Shiite port city of Basra In southern Iraq in support of al-Maliki. Ahmed al-Sari, a lawyer, said he joined Basra demonstration in order to show his support for al-Maliki "who is confronting a sectarian conspiracy that threatens Iraq's unity."
Iraqi officials said that the demonstrations held in Sunni areas were aimed to create nationwide chaos and revive sectarian conflict in the country. Sectarian tensions frequently boil over into bloody attacks, nowadays mostly by Sunni insurgents against Shiite residents and pilgrims.
Associated Press writer Sameer n. Yacoub contributed to this report.