RAMADI, Iraq - Large, noisy demonstrations against Iraq's government flared for the third time in less than a week Wednesday in Iraq's western Anbar province, raising the prospect of a fresh bout of unrest in a onetime al-Qaida stronghold on Syria's doorstep.
The rallies find echoes in the Arab Spring. Protesters chanted "the people want the downfall of the regime," a slogan that has rippled across the region and was fulfilled in Tunisia and Egypt. Other rallying cries blasted Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government as illegitimate and warned that protesters "will cut off any hand that touches us."
While the demonstrators' tenacious show of force could signal the start of a more populist Sunni opposition movement, it risks widening the deep and increasingly bitter rifts with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. If left unresolved, those disputes could lead to a new eruption of sectarian violence.
Protesters chant slogans against Iraq's Shiite-led government as they wave national flags during a demonstration in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday. Thousands of Iraqi demonstrators massed in a Sunni-dominated province west of Baghdad Wednesday, determined to keep up the pressure on a Shiite-led government that many accuse of trying to marginalize them.
The car bombings and other indiscriminate attacks that still plague Iraq are primarily the work of Sunni extremists. Vast Anbar province was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and later the birthplace of a Sunni militia that helped American and Iraqi forces fight al-Qaida.
Today, al-Qaida is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels try to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The demonstrations follow the arrest last week of 10 bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from Anbar and is one of the central government's most senior Sunni officials. He appeared before Wednesday's rally and was held aloft by the crowds.
Al-Issawi's case is exacerbating tensions between the Shiite-dominated government that rose to power following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and Iraq's Sunnis, who see the detentions as politically motivated.
"The danger is that the revolution in Syria is perpetuating Sunni opportunism and overconfidence in Iraq," said Ramzy Mardini, an analyst at the Beirut-based Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. "Al-Maliki may have sparked a Sunni tribal movement that will attempt to harness and capitalize on the revolutionary spirit," he said.
Protesters turned out Wednesday near the provincial capital Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad. The city and nearby Fallujah were the scenes of some of the deadliest fighting between U.S. troops and Iraqi insurgents.
Demonstrators blocked the main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan and Syria, just as they did at another protest Sunday.
Wednesday's protesters held banners demanding that Sunni rights be respected and calling for the release of Sunni prisoners in Iraqi jails. "We warn the government not to draw the country into sectarian conflict," read one. Another declared: "We are not a minority."