Iraq’s powerful Shiite figure Muqtada al-Sadr has urged Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to engage in direct talks with demonstrators in major Sunni provinces and to listen to their demands.
Sadr also called upon Iraqi politicians on Tuesday to resolve the issue of the presidency vacuum that emerged since the ailing President Jalal Talabani left to Germany for treatment.
Iraq’s government has released more than 300 prisoners held under anti-terrorism laws as a goodwill gesture to try to appease Sunni Muslim demonstrators who are staging protests against Maliki.
Three weeks of demonstrations, mainly in Sunni-dominated Anbar province, have evolved into a tough challenge for the Shi’ite premier, increasing worries that Iraq could slide back into the sectarian confrontation of its recent past.
Officials said a ministerial committee had freed 335 detainees whose jail terms had ended or whose cases had been dismissed for lack of evidence. Sunni leaders say security forces use terrorism laws to unfairly target their sect.
Dozens of prisoners in yellow Iraqi correctional department uniforms waited surrounded by guards as women in traditional robes and old men tried to catch a glance of detainees to see whether relatives were among those released.
“In name of the Iraqi State, I apologise to those who were arrested and jailed and were later proven to be innocent,” said Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, a senior Iraqi Shi’ite figure heading the committee.
Detainee releases are just one demand from Sunni protesters. Many are also calling for Maliki to step down, an end to a campaign to track down former members of Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party, and for an amnesty law.
Thousands of protesters are still camped out in Anbar, once the home of al-Qaeda’s campaign against U.S. troops in Iraq, where they have blocked a main road to Jordan and Syria near the Sunni heartland city of Ramadi.
“This is not enough. We didn’t ask for a gesture or a gift for the people. We want to give people their rights,” said Jaber al-Jaberi, a lawmaker from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya block.
The turmoil erupted in late December after officials arrested members of a Sunni finance minister’s security team on terrorism charges. Authorities denied that the case was political, but Sunni leaders rejected the arrests as part of a crackdown on their community.