by Jamal Hashim
BAGHDAD, Jan. 5 (Xinhua) -- Protests continue in the heartland of Iraq's Sunni Arabs who are furious at the country's Shiite-led government that many accuse of marginalizing them.
The protests began on Dec. 23, 2012, sparked by the arrest of chief of the Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi's protection force and nine bodyguards over charges of terrorism.
Issawi is a Sunni Arab and leading member of the secular Sunni- backed Iraqia bloc. The bloc, headed by former prime minister Ayad Allawi, is part of Maliki's unity government but almost always was at odds with him in public.
Many Sunnis see the arrest of Issawi's guards as the latest in a series of moves by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government against their community.
Vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, one of Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni politicians, lives in exile in Turkey after receiving multiple death sentences for allegedly running hit squads, a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
The protests which started in Anbar province in western Iraq swiftly spread in the major cities of the Sunni provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Salahudin north of the capital Baghdad, as well as in the capital's Sunni district of Azamiya.
For most protestors, they complain about injustice, marginalization, discrimination, double standards and politicization of the judicial system. They also accuse the prime minister of unleashing a pliable judiciary on his political opponents in order to legally tame the opposition in the political process.
"The arrest of Issawi's guards was only the straw that broke the camel's back, because Sunnis were already overloaded with anger from Maliki's Shiite-dominated security forces which the Sunnis believe indiscriminately arrest their sons and torture them, sometimes to death," Ibrahim al-Ameri, a teacher of politics in Baghdad University, told Xinhua.
The demonstrators also accused the Iraqi security forces of arresting women instead of their wanted male family members, demanding release of those women and prosecution for the officers who ordered to arrest them.
"The most unendurable act to do for a tribal society like the Sunni is to arrest their women, torture them and allegedly rape some of them by security members," Ameri said.
"Apparently those security forces are not working professionally because many of them originally were militiamen fought during the country's sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007 and were rewarded by joining them in the Iraqi army and police," Ameri added.
However, politicians from the Shiite alliance which includes Maliki's Dawa party slammed the protests as sectarian motivated and called on the Sunni community not to be dragged by the extremist to confront the Shiite community, warning that such conflict could divide the country.
Sabah al-Sheikh, a professor in a Baghdad University, told Xinhua that the solution for such impasse is that the government needs to carry out a substantial change in part of the rules of the political game, but he seems sceptical that the government is ready for such act.
"The ball now is in the field of the government, the leading Shiite parties and the parliament, they need to do a tough job to change laws seen by Sunnis as against them, or face unknown future for the country," Sheikh said.
Sunnis believe that the laws of anti-terrorism are used by Maliki to pursue political rivals, such as the Sunni vice president Tariq al-Hashimi, while the Accountability and Justice law was enacted to prevent Saddam Hussein's Baath party members, particularly Sunnis, from participation in the political life.
Maliki also distanced himself from the delay of the long- awaited amnesty law, which he said that the "parliament did not approve the amnesty law yet." But the Sunnis believe that the Shiite lawmakers in the parliament were behind the delay of the controversial amnesty draft.
"The question now is to what extent will the Sunni Arabs go with their protests? Because it seems hard for the political partners to meet such demands," he said.
However, in an interview with local Iraqi television earlier in the week, Maliki said that the current situation in Iraq put the country in front of four options: the first two are either to plunge into a sectarian conflict or to divide the country. But Maliki said these two options are totally rejected by him, and said that he supports the third option which is to hold early parliamentary elections.
The fourth option was to sit around a table to negotiate based on the constitution.
Ali al-Shareifi, an expert in politics, told Xinhua that "there is a political plot aimed at striking the political process."
"What is going on in Anbar province, Mosul, Samarra and other Sunni Arab areas is a plot backed by foreign agendas targeting not only the political process in Iraq, but also the whole region," Shareifi said.
"They want to bring the sectarian conflict in Syria to Iraq, but I believe that at the end of the day the Sunni tribes which fought the Qaida terrorist group will not allow such agendas to destroy Iraq again," Shareifi added.