FALLUJAH, Iraq (AP) — Thousands of protesters demonstrated Sunday in Iraq's western Sunni heartland following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to the finance minister, briefly blocking the main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria.
The dispute threatens to exacerbate tensions with Iraq's Sunnis, who accuse Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of targeting and marginalizing them. The sectarian conflicts have largely paralyzed the government and have often turned violent.
On Friday, Iraq's Shiite-led government said it arrested 10 of Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi's bodyguards on terrorism-related charges. The government said it carried out the arrests according to the law and opposes any efforts to sow sectarian discontent.
In al-Issawi's hometown of Fallujah, some demonstrators covering their faces with red-checkered traditional tribal headdress carried pistols under their clothes. Others held flags from the era of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein and those now being raised by Syrian anti-government rebels.
It was the second time in three days that protesters in Anbar province have flocked into the streets.
The protesters held banners denouncing what they called the "irresponsible practices" of the Shiite-led government against Sunnis and demanded the immediate release of al-Issawi's bodyguards. Other banners mocked that anti-terrorism law they charged applies only to Sunnis, while protesters chanted, "Down, Down al-Maliki."
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for al-Maliki, said the demonstrations were aimed to create nationwide chaos and revive the sectarian conflict in the country.
"Raising the old Iraq flag means that there were people affiliated to the previous regime that cannot live in the new Iraq," al-Moussawi said. "The Iraqi government respects demonstrations and their demands if they are in line with the law, but such demonstrations where the old flag is raised and sectarian slogans are used aim only at creating chaos."