Saddam Hussein’s Vice President Izzat Ibrahim ad-Douri accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Friday of seeking to implement an Iranian-backed agenda to divide Iraq.
In a video-taped message obtained by Al Arabiya, the fugitive ad-Douri -- who was confirmed as the head of Iraq’s Baath Party following the execution of Saddam on Dec. 30, 2006, said he was speaking from the central Babil Governorate on the anniversary of the Founding of the Iraqi Army.
Ad-Douri expressed his support for the thousands of people who have been demonstrating in various Iraqi provinces for two weeks against Prime Minister al-Maliki.
"What is happening in Iraq today, especially in its intelligence operations, and the government of puppets and its institutions, is the Persian-Safawi project in all its depth and comprehensiveness implemented by the Safawi coalition led by the Dawa Party and its leader Maliki," ad-Douri said in the video.
"After more than seven years, its influence and impact has now hit the bone. Oh the Honorable citizens, it is enough of deceit, fraud and quackery," he added.
"As you see today, from scenes of constructed conflict between symbols of the Persian-Safawi operation, it is a clear plan to destroy Iraq and annex it to Iran," ad-Douri said.
On Friday thousands of Sunnis demonstrated across Iraq in the latest of nearly two weeks of rallies criticizing the country’s premier and demanding the release of prisoners they say are wrongfully held.
The protests, which come amid a political deadlock between Prime Minister Maliki’s Shiite-led government and a secular Sunni-backed party that is in his cabinet but publicly opposes him, have blocked off a key trade route and forced heavy security measures.
The demonstrations have been given a cross-sectarian boost in recent days thanks to public displays of support by powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr who joined in Friday prayers at a major Sunni mosque in Baghdad, symbolically backing rallies against a premier with whom he has often clashed.
Demonstrators gathered at the Abu Hanifa mosque in the mostly-Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah, but were barred by security forces from leaving the compound to rally on the street, an AFP correspondent said.
The protesters held up banners calling for a mass prisoner release, stronger human rights provisions in Iraq’s prisons, and a repeal of current anti-terror legislation.
They have called for the release of prisoners they say were detained because of their Sunni background, and an end to the alleged misuse of anti-terror legislation by the Shiite-led authorities against their community.
“Baghdad, free, free! Iran, go away!” they shouted, a reference to their belief that Maliki’s government is beholden to Iraq’s Shiite neighbor Iran.
“How much longer will our children stay in prisons for no other reason than being Sunni,” asked a man who gave his name as Abu Abdullah.
Another protester who identified herself as Umm Mohammed told AFP: “My three children were arrested four years ago for no reason and I ask Maliki -- release them.”
Meanwhile Sadr, whose movement counts 40 lawmakers and five ministers among its supporters, attended Friday prayers at the Abdul Qader Gilani mosque, a prominent Sunni mosque in Baghdad.
Large-scale protests also took place in several cities north of Baghdad in Salaheddin, Diyala, Kirkuk, and Nineveh provinces, while demonstrators in western Anbar province continued to block off a highway linking Iraq to Syria and Jordan for a 12th successive day.
“We are demonstrating to support the protesters in Fallujah, Mosul, Samarra and other Iraqi cities,” said Ismail al-Hudaidi, a protest organizer in Kirkuk’s eponymous provincial capital.
Sheikh Ahmed Samarraie, imam of a mosque in Kirkuk city, added: “We are protesting to simply say: no to injustice, and yes to the release of innocent prisoners.”
On Thursday, the justice ministry said 11 female prisoners had been released and 13 others had been transferred to jails in their home provinces, two days after Maliki offered to push for the release of hundreds of female detainees in a bid to fulfill one of the protesters’ demands.
The premier on Friday called for protesters and security forces to act with restraint, after earlier this week warning demonstrators that the state could intervene to end rallies.
The protests began on December 23, and were sparked by the arrest of at least nine guards of Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi, a Sunni Arab and a leading member of the secular Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, which is part of Maliki’s unity government but frequently criticizes him in public.