FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) — Thousands of Iraqi Sunnis massed along a major western highway and in other parts of the country Friday for what appear to be the largest protests yet in a week of demonstrations, intensifying pressure on the Shiite-led government.
The rallies underscore the strength of a tenacious movement that appears to be gathering support. The largest demonstrations took place on a highway leading to Jordan and Syria in the Sunni-dominated desert province of Anbar west of Baghdad.
Protesters in the Anbar city of Fallujah held aloft placards declaring the day a "Friday of honor." Some carried old Iraqi flags used during the era of former dictator Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated government was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion nearly a decade ago.
Others raised the current flag, which was approved in 2008. A few raised the banner of the predominantly Sunni rebels across the border who are fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad.
In the northern city of Mosul, around 3,000 demonstrators took to the streets to denounce what they called the sidelining of Sunnis in Iraq and to demand the release of Sunni prisoners. As in protests earlier in the week, demonstrators there chanted the Arab Spring slogan: "The people want the downfall of the regime."
Thousands likewise took to the streets in the northern Sunni towns of Tikrit and Samarra, where they were joined by lawmakers and provincial officials, said Salahuddin provincial spokesman Mohammed al-Asi.
At a conference in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned against a return to sectarian conflict and cautioned that the country is close to returning to the "dark days when people were killed because of their names or identities."
He also used the occasion to take a jab at the protesters in Anbar.
"Nations that look for peace, love and reconstruction must choose civilized ways to express themselves. It is not acceptable to express opinions by blocking the roads, encouraging sectarianism, threating to launch wars and dividing Iraq," he said. "Instead we need to talk, to listen to each other and to agree ... to end our differences."
The demonstrations follow the arrest last week of 10 bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from Anbar and is one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials.
While the detentions triggered the latest bout of unrest, the demonstrations also tap into deeper Sunni fears that they are being marginalized by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Although the government includes some Sunni Arabs and Kurdish officials as part of a power-sharing agreement, it draws the bulk of its support from Iraq's majority Shiites.
Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, another top-ranking Sunni politician, is now living in exile in Turkey after being handed multiple death sentences earlier this year for allegedly running death squads — a charge he dismisses as politically motivated.
Sunni-dominated Anbar province has been the scene of several large demonstrations and road blockages since last Saturday. The vast territory was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Al-Qaida is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels in Syria.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Adam Schreck in Baghdad contributed reporting.