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Thursday, December 25, 2014  

Anti-Maliki ministers boycott cabinet
BAGHDAD Iraqi Sunni Muslim and Kurdish ministers boycotted a cabinet session on Tuesday to show support for protests that are threatening Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki’s fragile cross-sectarian government.  

Thousands of protesters have demonstrated and blocked a key highway in Iraq’s Sunni provinces for more than two weeks to challenge Maliki, a leader many Sunnis feel has marginalised their community a year after the last US troops pulled out.  

In a rival show of backing for the Shia premier, around 7,000 protesters marched on Tuesday in the southern cities of Basra and Kerbala, waving Maliki portraits and banners supporting the Shia parties in his coalition.   

Pro-government demonstrations were held in the port city of Basra, and the southern cities of Kut, Diwaniyah, Karbala and Samawa, journalists said, dismissing calls for reform of anti-terror laws and condemning the alleged involvement of other Middle Eastern countries in the anti-government rallies.

They ranged in numbers from several hundred in Kut to thousands in Basra.

Demonstrators carried photographs of relatives they said were killed in militant attacks, as well as Iraqi flags and banners painted with slogans including, “With our blood and souls, we will protect Iraq,” and “No, No for Sectarianism; Yes, Yes for National Unity”. Some placards backed Maliki, while others asked, “Is it just to release those responsible for killing?”, a reference to calls in anti-government protests for the release of prisoners allegedly being wrongfully held.

Protests and the conflict in nearby Syria are fuelling worries that Iraq risks sliding back into the sectarian slaughter that peaked in 2006 and 2007.  

Sunni-backed Iraqiya party lawmakers said their ministers stayed away from the cabinet meeting in support of the protests sparked in late December when security forces arrested bodyguards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafaie Al Esawi.  

“They made a decision to boycott the session today,” Iraqiya lawmaker Jaber Al Jaberi said. “They don’t see a response from the government to the demands of the protesters ... or to accepting power-sharing.”  

Alaa Talabani, a Kurdish lawmaker, said party leaders had also asked Kurdish ministers to stay away. A senior government source at the meeting confirmed Sunni and Kurdish ministers had missed the Council of Ministers session.  

In the Sunni heartland of Anbar province, once a base for Sunni fighters and Al Qaeda insurgents battling US troops, at least 5,000 protesters have taken daily to the streets and blocked a highway leading to the Syrian border.  

Sunni leaders and tribal sheikhs’ demands range from Maliki’s removal to release of detainees and the suspension of an anti-terrorism law that Sunnis believe has been abused by authorities to target their sect unfairly.  

Lawmakers from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya block, Maliki’s State of Law Shia alliance, Kurdish parties and other Shia parties failed to agree over the weekend on talks in parliament to discuss the demands of protesters.  

Demonstrations erupted a day after President Jalal Talabani flew out of Iraq for treatment following a stroke. A respected Kurdish statesman, Talabani has long been a moderating influence among Shia, Sunni and Kurdish factions.  

Violence and bombings are down sharply since the height of the Opec country’s conflict, but the government, split among Shias, minority Sunnis and ethnic Kurds, has been deadlocked over power-sharing.  

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