Iraqi Shiite cleric backs Sunnis’ right to protest

A SENIOR Shiite cleric has given his support to Sunni Muslim protesters who have been ­rallying against Iraq’s Shiite-dominated central government, increasing pressure on the leadership in Baghdad.

Hard-line religious leader Muqtada al-Sadr told reporters in the Shiite holy city of Najaf the demonstrators have the right to protest as long as they are peaceful. He stopped short of calling for a wider uprising, like those that have rippled across the region over the past two years, but warned of further unrest if demands on the street are not met.

“Beware of the Arab Spring in Iraq,” the firebrand cleric said yesterday, in a warning to the power-sharing government led by prime minister Nouri al-­Maliki, himself a Shiite.

Thousands of protesters have been holding rallies in the western desert province of Anbar and other Sunni strongholds for more than a week.

The demonstrations follow the arrest of bodyguards assigned to the Sunni finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi, though they tap into deeper Sunni grievances of perceived discrimination by Mr Maliki’s government. The protesters’ demands include guarantees of better government services and release of prisoners in Iraqi jails.

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Muqtada al-Sadr has a complex relationship with Baghdad and with Iraqi blocs outside his conservative Shiite power base.

He grudgingly backed rival Mr Maliki following elections in 2010, then last year joined Iraq’s minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for Mr Maliki to resign. The cleric’s loyalists hold 40 seats in parliament and retain control of several government ministries.

He said that Mr Maliki “bears full responsibility” for the discontent among Iraqis calling for change.