Iraqis Rally as Maliki Appeals for Calm to Avoid Chaos

Iraqis in Sunni-dominated provinces north and west of Baghdad joined protests against the Shiite-led government, after a lethal wave of violence prompted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to appeal for dialogue.

“Brothers, dialogue and understanding can achieve what terror, violence and killing can’t,” Maliki said in a televised address late yesterday after three days of clashes between armed Sunni tribesmen and security forces in the north that police say left at least 100 people dead.

Demonstrators were gathering today in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, and Samarra town in Salahuddin. In south-western Baghdad, a bomb exploded as Sunni worshippers were leaving a mosque, killing nine people.

Tensions have been on the rise since Sunnis began anti-government protests in December and worsened on April 23 when troops backed by helicopters stormed a plaza in Hawija, killing at least 20 protesters. Armed tribesmen who lost family members then attacked a number of army checkpoints in the governorate.

Iraq has been “affected by a region seething with sectarianism and we are starting to see those problems come to us,” Maliki said. “A rift is like fire that engulfs everything.’

Foreign rights groups have criticized Maliki’s handling of the protests.

‘‘The Iraqi authorities shouldn’t respond to the killings in Hawija by once again failing to hold security forces responsible for unlawful killings,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Turning a blind eye to previous abuses has helped create the violent environment that today threatens to escalate across Iraq.”

‘Noble Figures’

Sheikh Abdul al-Malek al-Saadi, a senior Sunni cleric, called on demonstrators to show restraint and to fight only if attacked in a statement on April 24. He called for the prime minister to be replaced “with other Iraqi, patriotic, noble figures.”

Maliki spoke after violence in the north also struck Sulaiman Bek. The northern town was largely quiet today after the army entered following negotiations with tribal leaders.

Violence has escalated since the U.S. withdrew its last combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, with 4,568 civilians killed in 2012 compared with 4,144 in the previous year, according to the Iraq Body Count website.

(Corrects description of provinces in first paragraph of story originally published on April 26.)
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