By Adam Schreck, The Associated Press January 1, 2013
BAGHDAD - A top anti-American Shiite cleric lent support Tuesday to Sunni 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 that 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 in a warning to the power-sharing government led by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, 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 al-Maliki's government. The protesters' demands include guarantees of better government services and release of prisoners in Iraqi jails.
Al-Sadr has a complex relationship with Baghdad and with Iraqi blocs outside his conservative Shiite power base.
He grudgingly backed longtime rival al-Maliki following elections in 2010, then last year joined Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs and Kurds in calling for al-Maliki to resign. Al-Sadr's loyalists hold 40 seats in parliament and retain control of several government ministries.
He said Tuesday that al-Maliki "bears full responsibility" for the discontent among Iraqis calling for change.
Still, the cleric's backing is not unequivocal. He expressed hope that protesters would not advocate a return to dictatorship or pursue a sectarian agenda.
Iraq's majority Shiites, including al-Sadr and al-Maliki, rose to political prominence following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.
"As long as the demonstrations are peaceful and don't seek to dismantle Iraq ... we are with the protests, and parliament should be with them, not against them," he said. "The demands of demonstrators are legitimate and popular, so they should be met."
The staying power and level of anger among the Anbar protesters in particular appears to have caught Iraqi leaders off guard.
At least two people were wounded on Sunday when bodyguards and security forces protecting a senior Sunni politician opened fire to disperse protesters, marking the first casualties since the demonstrations began. The politician, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, blamed the incident on "rogue elements" within the crowd.
The unrest comes as Iraq struggles to maintain its security and stability a year after the last U.S. combat troops left.
British monitoring group Iraq Body Count said in its annual report Tuesday that it recorded 4,471 civilian deaths from violence in Iraq during 2012, up from 4,136 in 2011. The non-governmental organization has consistently attempted to record Iraqi civilian casualties since the invasion in March 2003.
A wave of attacks that primarily targeted Iraqi Shiites and the ethnically disputed city of Kirkuk killed at least 26 people on Monday.