Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Sunni Muslims demonstrated in the streets of Iraq’s Sunni-dominated provinces for the ninth straight day Sunday, demanding an end to the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, Arab dailies report.

What began in Ramadi and Fallujah, two of the largest cities in the heavily Sunni Al-Anbar province, with over 60,000 people who came out to protest what they perceive as anti-Sunni discrimination, has spread to the northern cities of Samarra and Mosul, according to a leading article in the London-based Al-Quds Al-Arabi entitled “Iranian flags burned and a road is cut off in Anbar.”

The article states that the Sunni protesters have managed to block off the main road in the Al-Anbar province that links Baghdad with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, and are continuing to burn the flags of Iran, a country which they say wields way too much influence over the current Iraqi government.

‘Oh Maliki, you are a coward for taking advice from Iran’

Cheers of “Oh Iran, the road to Baghdad must remain free” and “Oh Maliki, you are a coward for taking advice from Iran” are still being chanted throughout the crowds. The protests are raising fears that the the bloody civil war that engulfed Iraq from 2005 to 2007 could be sparked anew.

The Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat explains that the protesters have been given a breath of new life amid increasing reports of the mistreatment in Iraqi prisons of Sunni prisoners, who have been rounded up by the thousands under the government’s suspicious “Anti-Terrorism Act.”

Prime Minister Maliki himself has even begun to acknowledge that the Sunni protesters might have a point.

“Some demands of the demonstrators are legitimate,” he said in a meeting yesterday with prominent Sunni religious leaders, but he warned about the danger of the country being dragged into a situation with “very evil consequences.”

In a related statement in Elaph, Tareq Hashimi, the former Iraqi vice president who fled to Turkey after being accused and later convinced of murder, urges Iraqis of all sects to “further isolate the Maliki government” until the government agrees to shed its secrecy and open up state records on discriminatory practices and the mistreatment of prisoners. Sheikh Ahmed Abu Risha, the president of the Anbar Salvation Council, a collection of tribal militias, called on Maliki to “recognize the demands of the demonstrators” plain and simple, including the release of innocent detainees in Iraqi prisons and an end to the marginalization of and discrimination against Sunnis in the national government.

“Government policies are unfairly hurting everyone in the north, center, and south… There has not yet been recognition of the historical injustice imposed on Sunni Arabs… Sunni Arabs are being marginalized and displaced and killed. They are now strangers in the land of their fathers and grandfathers and this truth should be recognized by all.”

‘Sunni Arabs are being marginalized and displaced and killed. They are now strangers in the land of their fathers and grandfathers and this truth should be recognized by all’

Some provincial governments seem to support Hashimi’s comments. The Doha-based media network Al-Jazeera reports that the government of the Nineveh province in the north has declared a 72-hour general strike in solidarity with the protesters. If Maliki does not act quickly and boldly, the strike may continue and spread to other provinces as well.

“What is happening in Iraq is that there is a system of oppression, no different in intention from Saddam Hussein but merely lacking the ability to extend further,” writes Tareq Homayed, the outgoing editor-in-chief of the strongly pro-Sunni A-Sharq Al-Awsat in an op-ed entitled “Maliki now in the eye of the storm.”

“Maliki wants to monopolize Iraq as a whole, destroy social components, and distort the political system,” he continues. “America is giving him its blessing with its silence and indifference. The land of Mesopotamia is turning into a bastion of influence for the Iranian mullahs. Iraq’s political system currently stands on the head of those who want to control everything, marginalize everyone, just like the regime of Saddam Hussein, without any consideration for history and without taking into account the nature of the Iraqi entity.”

Regardless of where they stand politically, Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq seem to agree on one thing: that there exists a national political system in their country which has failed to bring about reconciliation, and risks further tearing apart the fabric of their society.

Eli Cohen may come home soon

Al-Quds Al-Arabi has picked up a report about covert negotiations between the Israeli government and defected Syrian military officers over the remains of the famous Israeli spy Eli Cohen. Brokered by various tribes in northern Jordan, the renegade Syrian rebels are trying to persuade Israel to provide the opposition with weapons and tactical assistance in exchange for information and, quite possibly, Cohen’s actual remains.

Eli Cohen was an Egyptian-born Israeli Mossad agent who operated covertly in Syria between 1962 and 1965. He was able to develop close relationships with senior political and military officials and even became the chief adviser to the minister of defense. He was eventually caught and executed in Syria in 1965 and his remains have stayed there since. The intelligence he gathered is viewed as a critical factor in Israel’s capture of the Golan Heights during the Six Day War.

“Over 100 figures representing Jordanian tribes from all the northern provinces facilitated the entry and exit [into Israel] of a number of high-ranking Syrian defectors for meetings with Israeli officials,” the paper reports. “Syrian dissidents officers are present in the territory of Jordan to meet with Israeli officials to pave the way for an American-Zionist project in Syria and to protect the borders of the occupied Golan.”

A spokesman for one Jordanian tribe which apparently disapproved of these contacts, Sheikh Mohammed Khalaf, denounced the meetings and warned the Syrian people about the dangers of collaborating with “the Zionists.”