Thousands of protesters urging Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki to fulfill their demands gathered in the Sunni stronghold province of Anbar amid tight security, Al Arabiya reported Friday.
The protesters gathered in Al-Itisam Square in Anbar’s capital, Ramadi, after finishing their Friday prayers. Thousands of demonstrators also took to the streets in Salah Al-Din province’s main city, Samara.
The crisis has been worsened by weeks of demonstrations against Maliki’s rule in mostly-Sunni areas, with protesters alleging misuse of anti-terror laws to wrongfully hold members of their community, and claiming they were being targeted by the Shiite-led authorities.
Iraq said it has released 3,000 detainees; however thousands still remain in detention, U.N.-Iraq envoy, Martin Kobler, said.
The protesters were also vying to advance their protests all the way to Baghdad; however, Al Arabiya reported that the demonstrators have postponed their plan to protest in the capital.
According to the Iraqi Revolution Facebook page, Thursday marked the second anniversary of the protest that was heavily suppressed by the government in Baghdad’s Firdos Square.
“The government continues to follow the same authoritarian course in suppressing protests,” it added.
Meanwhile, a top American general warned on Thursday that sectarian tensions and political discord in Iraq signal a “troubling” trend in the country since U.S. troops withdrew a year ago.
Iraq has remained stable but “fragile,” said General Lloyd Austin, who was the last U.S. commander in Iraq before all his forces withdrew in December 2011.
Austin offered his assessment when pressed by Republican Senator John McCain, a hawk on the Iraq war who has heavily criticized President Barack Obama for pulling out American troops.
“So do you believe Iraq is headed in a positive or negative direction?” McCain asked the general.
“Sir, I think, again, some of the things that we’re seeing in Iraq are very troubling, with the Arab current tensions, with the Sunni protests,” he said.
McCain then asked: “So whether we had troops there -- a residual force there or not wouldn't have mattered?”
Austin acknowledged that a U.S. troop presence would have been helpful.
“I think that, certainly, if we could have continued to advise and assist the Iraqis, I think certainly it would have continued to make them better.”
The Obama administration says it sought to negotiate a follow-on force but the Iraqi government refused to grant legal immunity to U.S. forces deployed there.
Iraq has been rocked by a wave of car bombs and suicide attacks in recent weeks, raising fears of a return to the sectarian bloodshed that plagued the country from 2005 to 2008.
The violence has come against a backdrop of political crisis and weeks of protests in Sunni-majority areas demanding Maliki’s ouster.