Around 60,000 people blocked the main road through Falluja, 50 km (30 miles) west of the capital, setting fire to the flag of Shi’ite Iran and shouting “out, out Iran! Baghdad stays free” and “Maliki you coward, don’t take your advice from Iran”.
Many Sunnis, whose community dominated Iraq until the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, accuse Maliki of refusing to share power and of being under the sway of its non-Arab neighbor.
“We will not leave this place until all our demands are fulfilled, including the toppling of the Maliki government,” said 31-year-old Omar al-Dahal at a protest in Ramadi, where more than 100,000 protesters blocked the same highway as it leads to neighboring Syria and Jordan.
Activists’ demands include an end to the marginalization of Sunnis, the abolition of anti-terrorism laws they say are used to target them, and the release of detainees.
Protests flared last week in Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold in western Iraq where demonstrators have mounted the blockades, after troops loyal to Maliki, who is from the Shi’ite majority, detained bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.
Demonstrations were also held in the northern city of Mosul and in Samarra, where protesters chanted “the people want to bring down the regime”, echoing the slogan used in popular revolts that ousted leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen.
The protests are likely to add to concerns the civil war in neighboring Syria, where majority Sunnis are fighting to topple a ruler backed by Shi’ite Iran, will drive Iraq back to the sectarian slaughter of 2005-7.
Militants linked to al Qaeda appear to be joining the ranks of Syrian rebels across the border and regrouping in Anbar, which was almost entirely controlled by militants at the height of Iraq’s insurgency.
Security forces did not move to break up the protests, but prevented people from other provinces from heading to Anbar to join the rallies there.