(MENAFN - Arab News) Tens of thousands of Iraqi Sunnis took to the streets in Baghdad and other cities after prayers on Friday, in another show of discontent with Shiite Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki.
Three weeks of mass protests reflect deep discontent among Sunnis who say Al-Maliki's Shiite-led government has marginalized their minority community.
Waving Iraqi flags and chanting against the government, several thousand protesters gathered with Sunni leaders and clerics outside Baghdad's huge Umm Al-Qura mosque, the city's largest mosque, which was built by former leader Saddam Hussein.
"These gatherings and rallies are not against a community, a political party or a person. They are against the unjust intentions of a government," Sunni lawmaker Ahmed Al-Missari shouted in a speech to the seething crowd. "We will not accept being second-class citizens."
The unrest is developing into the most serious challenge yet for Al-Maliki.
Sunni lawmakers are also trying to win support from Al-Maliki's Shiite and Kurdish rivals to oust him with a no-confidence vote in Parliament, but the premier's foes remain deeply divided.
Thousands demonstrators have been camped out on a major highway near the Sunni stronghold of Ramadi, about 100 km west of Baghdad, before the point at which it splits, with one road leading to Syria and another to Jordan.
In Fallujah, 50 km west of Baghdad, Sunni demonstrators raised Saddam-era Iraqi flags, waving a banner that read: "The wisdom of today: The gallows is the end of a dictatorship, do not forget."
Some carried caricatures of Al-Maliki, one of them showing him with a bag full of dollars and fleeing on an Iranian plane.
More than 10,000 demonstrators also rallied in a central square after prayers in Mosul, chanting: "We are ready to sacrifice our blood and souls for Iraq."
Some hard-liners want a change of government, or even demand an autonomous Sunni province bordering Syria. But more moderate leaders want to keep their posts within the power-sharing agreement.
"I have come here every day for two weeks, and my ambition is supporting this revolution," said Akram Rasheed, 68, a protester in Mosul. "I have no request other than to topple this sectarian regime."
Meanwhile, at least a dozen inmates, including several prisoners linked to Al-Qaeda who have been sentenced to death, escaped from a jail north of Baghdad early yesterday, security officials said.
Sources mooted the possibility of collusion on the part of prison guards in allowing the jailbreak, which occurred shortly after midnight in the town of Taji, 25 km from the capital.
An Interior Ministry official said all 12 prisoners who escaped were Iraqis, but a military source put the number of escapees at 16.
"They escaped from Taji prison after they got hold of the guards' weapons," said the military officer.
"It could be there was cooperation from the guards."
The officer said most of the escapees were linked to Al-Qaeda's front group the Islamic State of Iraq, while the ministry official said several had been sentenced to death.
Jailbreaks and prison unrest are relatively common in Iraq.