Iraq troops fire in air to disperse Sunni Muslim protesters

BAGHDAD Mon Jan 7, 2013 11:48am GMT

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi troops fired shots in the air to disperse Sunni Muslims rallying against Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on Monday in another day of protests threatening to upset the fragile cross-sectarian government.

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets in Sunni strongholds across Iraq for more than two weeks, increasing fear that turmoil in neighbouring Syria may help tip Iraq back into sectarian violence a year after the last U.S. troops left.

In the northern city of Mosul, Iraqi troops fired shots over hundreds of protesters trying to gather in a public square, and in the Sunni heartland province of Anbar, at least 5,000 more people took to the streets peacefully.

"Security forces opened fire and used batons to disperse demonstrators," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of the capital Baghdad.

He said one demonstrator had been hit by a security forces vehicle and others had been wounded. Ghanim al-Abid, a protest organizer in Mosul, told Reuters, that at least four people had been wounded by security forces.

Demonstrators have blocked a major highway leading through the remote Anbar desert to Syria's border since late December when Maliki's forces arrested bodyguards protecting Finance Minister Rafaie al-Esawi, a leading Sunni figure.

The bodyguard arrests touched off protests by tens of thousands of Sunnis who feel sidelined by Maliki, a Shi'ite Islamist who Sunni Iraqis say is amassing power and who they see as deeply under the influence of Shi'ite non-Arab Iran.

The protests are increasing pressure on Maliki over Iraq's power-sharing deal among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs, which have been locked in a slow-burning crisis since the last American troops left in December 2011.

Sunni demands range from fixing failing public services to amending anti-terror laws they say are abused to target their community. Maliki has made some concessions such as releasing some detainees, but protests continue daily.

Many Sunni politicians and tribal leaders sense a chance in the crisis in neighbouring Syria, where mainly Sunni rebels are fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad, an Iran ally whose minority Alawite sect has roots in Shi'ite Islam.

Should Assad fall, a Sunni regime could come to power in Syria, weakening the influence of Iran in the region's Shi'ite-Sunni power balance. That would embolden Iraq's own Sunni minority, many of whom feel alienated since the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein and the rise of Iraq's Shi'ite majority.

The Sunni protests erupted a day after President Jalal Talabani left Iraq for medical treatment following a stroke. A veteran Kurdish statesman, Talabani has long been a moderating influence among Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish factions.

(Reporting by Aseel Kami in Baghdad, Sufyan Mashhadani and Mohammed Omar in Mosul; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Mark Heinrich)