For many Iraqi Shiites, the months of protests coupled with the latest unrest raise worrying parallels to the civil war engulfing neighboring Syria.
There, Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime is fighting largely Sunni rebels who draw support from Turkey and Sunni Gulf states. Assad's Alawite sect is a branch of Shiite Islam, and his regime is backed by Shiite powerhouse Iran, which also has significantly bolstered ties with Iraq in the years since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In a speech Saturday, al-Maliki warned that sectarianism is an "evil thing" that can swiftly spread from country to country in the Islamic world — an apparent reference to the divisions in Syria.
"If sectarianism erupts in one place, then it will erupt elsewhere too," he said. "And it is returning to Iraq because it has erupted in another area in the region."
That echoed previous concerns raised by the Iraqi premier. In a February interview with The Associated Press, al-Maliki predicted a victory for rebels in Syria would destabilize the wider Middle East, sparking sectarian wars in his own country and in Lebanon.
In further violence Saturday, gunmen also opened fire on a checkpoint manned by government-allied Sunni fighters, killing five of them, near the city of Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.
The militiamen, known as Sahwa, are among those who joined forces with U.S. troops to fight al-Qaida during the Iraq war. Since then, the group has been a target for Sunni insurgents who consider its members to be traitors.
Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck in Baghdad, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed.