MOSUL/BAGHDAD: An Iraqi protester set himself ablaze Sunday in a dramatic turn in more than three weeks of rallies by Sunnis challenging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
Thousands of Sunni demonstrators have rallied since late December against a Shiite-led government they believe has marginalized their minority sect, raising fears the OPEC country may slide again into widespread sectarian confrontation.
During protests of around 2,000 demonstrators in the northern city of Mosul, Talal Ali Abbasset set himself ablaze before others quickly stamped out the flames with their jackets, police said. He was sent to hospital with burns to his face and hands.
“We don’t want people to hang themselves or burn themselves, this would be against Islam,” said Ghanim al-Abid, protest organizer in Mosul, 390 kilometers north of Baghdad. “But he reached such a state of despair he set himself on fire.”
Self-immolations have had resonance in the Arab world since a Tunisian vegetable seller set himself on fire two years ago. His death in January 2011 triggered the wave of uprisings that toppled leaders across North Africa and the Middle East.
Sunday’s incident in Iraq shows the frustration among Sunnis that has not ebbed despite concessions from Maliki.
Maliki and the leader of the Kurdish region each blamed the other for ongoing anti-government protests.
The two issued rival statements in the latest in a series of disputes that have hardened the opposition against Maliki and pitted him against several of his erstwhile government partners, including Iraq’s main Kurdish political faction, who accuse him of authoritarianism and sectarianism.
“The federal government ... has increased the crisis through neglect and threats that have led to dangerous consequences,” Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani said in a statement issued late Saturday.
“ Iraq has, for a long time, been going through a major crisis because of the neglect of services for citizens, and not implementing the constitution and agreements.”
Barzani also backed “the legitimate demands” of demonstrators in mostly Sunni areas of Iraq who have for weeks railed against the Shiite-led authorities for allegedly holding members of their community without charge and misusing anti-terror laws to target Sunnis.
Maliki, meanwhile, issued his own statement Sunday in which he expressed surprise at Barzani’s statement, which he said “reveals a desire to hinder dialogue among the Iraqi people and components, and revive ugly sectarian strife.”
“It seems that these factions do not like to see agreement between Iraqis,” he said in a statement.
Iraq’s protests began on Dec. 23 in mostly Sunni areas of Iraq, sparked by the arrest of at least nine of Finance Minister Rafa al-Issawi’s guards. The longest-running demonstration has blocked a key highway linking Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.
The rallies have hardened opposition toward Maliki, who is at loggerheads with Sunni, Kurd and Shiite members of his national unity government.
Many Iraqi Sunnis feel they have been unfairly targeted by security forces and sidelined from power since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein and the rise of the Shiite majority through the ballot box.
The crisis comes with barely three months to go before provincial elections, a key barometer of support for the premier and his opponents ahead of a general election next year.
Maliki has appointed Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al-Shahristani, an influential Shiite figure, to address protester demands, and the government has released more than 400 detainees in an effort to appease protestors.
“There is no time left for talks. The government has to stand up to its responsibility and take a crucial decision to meet demands,” Sunni lawmaker Wihda al-Jumaili said.
Protesters want anti-terrorism laws modified, prisoners released, an amnesty law passed and an easing of a campaign against former members of Saddam’s outlawed Baathist party, a measure Sunnis believe has been used to target their leaders.
They are also demanding better government services, a complaint they share with other Iraqis frustrated by the lack of economic progress despite windfall state revenues from growing oil production.