BAGHDAD — Iraqi forces fired into the air to disperse protesters as demonstrations spread to eight regions demanding that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki share more power.
Thousands of protesters gathered in the capital, Baghdad, and Ramadi, Falluja, Tikrit, Mosul, Samarra, Kirkuk and Diyala, according to footage shown by Al Jazeera television. “The people want the downfall of the regime,” chanted a crowd in Mosul, echoing a slogan repeated in protests that led to the fall of the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya.
Maliki warned in a statement on his website that “foreign agendas” were trying to divide the country and stir sectarian infighting in Iraq, the second-biggest producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. One of his main opponents, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, called for Maliki’s resignation and early elections in a statement read by the local al-Sharqiya television station.
Violence and political clashes in Iraq have increased since the end of 2011 when the U.S. pulled out the last of the troops it deployed since the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Allawi’s Sunni-backed al-Iraqiya coalition boycotted parliament and Cabinet sessions for several weeks last year to denounce what they say is a power grab by Maliki, a Shiite ally of neighboring Iran. Tensions have also run high between the Maliki government and Iraq’s Kurds, mainly focused on disputed land and control of the nation’s oil wealth.
There were no reports on casualties as security forces fired warning shots and beat a number of protesters in Mosul, Al Jazeera and a witness reported.
“They used batons against people who had just finished Friday prayers in Sultan mosque, and then fired in the air to force them to go back and prevent them from joining other protesters,” Omar Thanoon, a 32-year-old government employee, said by phone from Mosul.
Opponents of Maliki have been holding street protests in various regions with mostly Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations. Many Sunnis, Kurds and followers of Shiite leader Moqtada al- Sadr have asked Maliki to share more power.
Maliki’s opponents have also asked for the release of prisoners. The Justice Ministry issued a statement Thursday to announce that 11 women detainees were freed..
The opposition has also called for a general amnesty and the revocation of laws they say are being used to target Sunnis accused of being terrorists or members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party, which has been banned since the U.S.-led invasion.
Government soldiers clashed for the first time with Kurdish forces on Nov. 16, leaving one person dead. The Kurds have since halted crude exports as agreements with the federal government over payments for oil sales faltered.
Iraq holds the world’s fifth-biggest crude reserves, according to BP Plc statistics that include Canada’s oil sands.
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