"I hope that these protests would not turn violent ... and drag the country to a sectarian war," he told al-Baghdadiya TV.
Al-Qaida's local affiliate this week posted a statement praising the protesters, saluting what it called "the true Muslims who revolted in defense of their honor and religion."
A senior Iraqi security official who specializes in terrorist activities said al-Qaida is making use of the resentment in predominantly Sunni provinces, where local residents who used to provide authorities tips about terrorist activities are growing much more reluctant to snitch.
He and another senior security official said al-Qaida fighters now have more freedom to move around. That is partly because state security forces' movements are being restricted in Sunni areas so they cannot be accused of unfairly targeting the Muslim sect, they said.
The second official said the demonstrations give extremists a good opportunity to try to mobilize Sunni opposition and portray themselves as the only groups who can safeguard the rights and interests of the Sunni minority.
The Iraqi officials insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss security operations with the media.
The local wing of al-Qaida, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, generally does not operate beyond Iraq's borders. But al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri last year urged Iraqi insurgents to support the Sunni-based uprising in neighboring Syria against President Bashar Assad, whose Alawite sect is a branch of Shiite Islam.
Iraqi officials believe Sunni fighters aligned with al-Qaida's Iraq franchise are moving back and forth across the Syrian border to help Sunni rebels overthrow Assad.
Rebel gains in Syria are giving Iraq's Sunni protesters and insurgents alike a sense that their fortunes may be shifting too.
"Sunnis seem ascendant in Syria. That is a major psychological boost to the Sunnis in Iraq," said Kamran Bokhari, an expert on Mideast issues for the global intelligence company Stratfor. "They're trying to capitalize on that."
Other militants are trying to tie their fight to the protests too.
Earlier this month, uniformed members of the Naqshabandi Army appeared in an online video urging Iraqis to continue their protests, sit-ins and acts of civil disobedience. It called on security forces to turn their weapons on the "traitors and foreign agents" — a likely reference to what many Sunnis see is Shiite powerhouse Iran's influence over the government.
The group, a network of former Iraqi military officers and jihadists, frequently claims responsibility for attacks on government security forces.
The highest ranking member of Saddam's regime still at large, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, has separately lent his support to the demonstrators. Al-Douri, who is suspected of having ties to the Naqshabandi Army, is thought to have played a key role in financing Sunni insurgents seeking to undermine Iraq's post-Saddam government.
Another small jihadist group, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, put out a statement of its own backing the protest movement.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed reporting.
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