RAMADI, Iraq: Iraq’s Sunni finance minister announced his resignation to a crowd of Sunni protesters Friday after more than two months of demonstrations against the Shiite-led government.
The country’s precarious sectarian balance has come under growing strain as Iraqi Sunnis vent frustrations that have built up since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 overthrew Saddam Hussein and empowered majority Shiites through the ballot box.
Protesters are demanding Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki quit over what they see as the marginalization of their minority sect and misuse of terrorism laws to target Sunnis.
“I came today in order to announce my resignation from this government in front of you,” Rafaie al-Issawi told a crowd of protesters from a stage in the western province of Anbar, on the border with Syria.
“I am presenting my resignation in front of you. I do not care about a government that does not respect the Iraqi blood and its people,” Issawi told the cheering crowd, who cheered in approval of his decision.
He later told Reuters: “More than 70 days of demonstrations and this government has not fulfilled our people’s demands. It doesn’t honor me to be part of a sectarian government. I decided to stay with my people.”
The resignation, however, has to be formally endorsed by Maliki, leaving Issawi’s status in government unclear for now.
Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the prime minister, said Maliki would not accept the finance minister’s resignation until a previously undisclosed investigation into alleged “financial and administrative irregularities” is complete. He refused to give further details.
It was Maliki’s arrest of Issawi’s bodyguards that ignited the Sunni protests in December.
Issawi’s announcement marks the first resignation of a senior Sunni member of government since the protests began.
Iraqi authorities said Issawi’s bodyguards had confessed to involvement in assassinations carried out in coordination with security men employed by Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who fled into exile a year ago and was later sentenced to death in absentia for terrorism.
The demonstrations in the Sunni heartland are fueling concerns that the increasingly sectarian conflict in neighboring Syria will tip Iraq back into the bloody intercommunal strife of 2006-2007.
Violence has intensified with the swell of Sunni opposition to Maliki, whose power-sharing government has been all but paralyzed since U.S. troops withdrew in December 2011.
Al-Qaeda is thought to be regrouping in the caves and valleys of Anbar and has called on Sunni protesters to take up arms against the Maliki government.
Issawi was once a leader of armed Islamist group Hamas al-Iraq, which was active in Anbar.