“Horrible things would have happened if we hadn't been able to control these people,” said Iraqi opposition lawmaker Ahmed al-Alwani.
That could change the longer protesters' rage simmers. Leaders of the demonstrations are demanding that the government hand over soldiers involved in the shooting deaths of five stone-throwing protesters late last month — the first such deaths since the protests began. Soldiers have since been killed in apparent retaliatory attacks.
Abu Risha told the AP that if another Fallujah-style shooting happens, armed militants will likely get involved.
“There were armed groups that wanted to attack the army, but we prevented them,” he said. “If the army continues such acts, we will not stop the resistance groups from dealing with the army. … The national resistance will take over the task of protecting the protesters.”
Asked to specify which militant groups might take up arms, Abu Risha named the Islamic Army in Iraq and the 1920 Revolution Brigades.
The two Sunni insurgent groups targeted American forces after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. They do not share al-Qaida's fundamentalist ideology and some in their ranks have actively clashed with the jihadist group.
Both have voiced support for the protests. So has al-Qaida's local franchise. That has prompted concern from Iraqi and U.S. officials, who fear that extremists could draw support from the demonstrators' feelings of alienation and hostility toward the Shiite-led government.
The prime minister's spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, dismissed Abu Risha's comments as being “outside the framework of the law and the constitution.” He said the influential clan leader does not represent all the protesters and is seeking personal gain from the demonstrations.
But regional experts at the Eurasia Group believe the government's handling of the Sunni opposition is fostering a longer-term security threat in Iraq's west. Analysts Crispin Hawes and Ayham Kamel wrote in a recent report that al-Maliki's approach “plays into the hands of Sunni extremists.”
Michael Hanna, a Middle East expert at the Century Foundation, said Sunni political leaders have not done enough to stem political violence and terrorism. But he questioned whether Sunni militants would try to confront Iraqi troops head on.
“The leaders are probably pretty dubious of where that leads. The security forces, for all their shortfalls, have become a real fighting force,” he said.
Some protesters say the Fallujah shooting marked a turning point that has galvanized their call for reform. An empty coffin commemorating the “martyrs of Fallujah” lies in the middle of the Ramadi protest grounds.
“The shooting shows that the government has become more repressive against the Sunnis,” said Sunni cleric Fakhir al-Taie, who was one of at least 20 wounded during the Fallujah melee. “Now we view the government as an enemy to us. … The core problem is that we have no confidence in this government.”
Fear of further clashes with security forces is one reason that protesters have not yet tried to march on the capital. Organizers considered holding mass prayers in Baghdad last week but later decided against it. The government sealed off approaches to the capital just in case.
Baghdad has been spared large-scale protests so far. Several hundred worshippers rally in the courtyard of a prominent mosque after prayers each Friday but do not take their protests any further.
Demonstrators have taken to the streets in other cities with large Sunni communities, including Samarra, Tikrit and Mosul.
Abdul-Hameed Younis Hamouda, a 60-year-old tribal leader and one of the organizers in Mosul, acknowledges that the government has addressed some of the protesters' grievances, but says it still has a long way to go.
“The delay in meeting our demands is not in the government's interest,” he said. “Our patience is running out.”