BAGHDAD The most senior member of the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's entourage still at large has urged Sunni Muslim anti-government protesters to stand their ground until the Shi'ite prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, is toppled.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri heads Saddam's now-banned Baath party, whose leaders fled or went underground after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew the Sunni strongman and empowered the Shi'ite majority.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis, some waving Saddam-era flags, have staged demonstrations in a show of anger against Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalising their community and monopolising power.
"The people of Iraq and all its nationalist and Islamic forces support you until the realisation of your just demands for the fall of the Safavid-Persian alliance," said Douri, addressing protesters in footage broadcast on the pan-Arab news channel Al Arabiya.
Douri said he was in the Iraqi province of Babil but the authenticity or timing of the video could not be verified.
The Safavid dynasty ruled Shi'ite Iran - which at times also controlled parts of modern-day Iraq - from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
Since Maliki came to office in 2006, Iraq has edged closer to its neighbour, which wields strong influence over several Iraqi Shi'ite parties.
In the video, Douri was surrounded by men in military uniform. He said the Baath leadership was considering launching a campaign to "justly and decisively" punish civilians and soldiers who supported what he described as Iran's "Safavid project" for Iraq.
"It is a clear plan to destroy Iraq and annex it to Iran," he said. "We warn those traitors, agents and spies ... who support the dangerous project ... that the national resistance will confront them."
The influential Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a rival to Maliki who has voiced support for the Sunni rallies, said Douri and his followers were agents of the United States and Israel, and urged the protesters to denounce him.
SIXTH MOST WANTED
"If the government is not able to seriously and urgently capture (or kill) him, this will be our job, we, the soldiers of God upon earth," he said in a statement on his website.
Douri, seldom seen since 2003, was the deputy head of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam, and took over as Baath Party leader after Saddam was executed in 2006.
After the 2003 invasion, he was ranked sixth on the U.S. military's list of 55 most wanted Iraqis and a $10 million reward was offered for his capture. U.S. officials accused him of organising the insurgency that peaked in 2005-07.
The conflict in neighbouring Syria, where a Sunni-led insurgency is fighting to remove a leader backed by Shi'ite Iran, is whipping up sectarian tension across the region and straining a precarious political balance between Iraq's Sunni, Shi'ite and Kurdish factions.
That has raised concern about a relapse into intercommunal slaughter in Iraq just over a year after U.S. troops withdrew.
A car bomb parked near a vegetable and fruit market in the town of Kanaan in Diyala province killed two people on Saturday, police said, in an attack the mayor blamed on Baathists seeking to ignite sectarian strife.
At least four Shi'ite pilgrims were also killed by a car bomb near the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala.
The protests in Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartland pose a new challenge to Maliki, who is already at odds with the autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Iyad Allawi, the head of the Sunni-backed Iraqiya political bloc, on Friday called on Maliki to resign and for an interim government to take over pending an early election.
Failing that, he said Maliki's alliance should select an alternative prime minister.
The latest crisis gathered pace just hours after President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd seen as a moderating influence between the political groups, suffered a stroke and was flown to Germany for medical care.
Talabani's medical team said on Saturday the 79-year-old was responding very well to treatment and had "passed the difficult stages more quickly than expected", but gave no details about his health or whether he was able to communicate.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba in Cairo and Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Kevin Liffey)