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Thousands protest in Shiite provinces in southern Iraq

By Mohammed Tawfeeq, CNN
January 8, 2013 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
 Iraqi protestors gather in support of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the city of Karbala, southwest of Baghdad, on January 8, 2013.
Iraqi protestors gather in support of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the city of Karbala, southwest of Baghdad, on January 8, 2013.
  • Shiites demonstrated in Basra, Diwaniyah, Karbala, Al-Muthana and Babil provinces
  • They supported Iraqi government and prime minister, opposed sectarianism
  • Protests were in response to those of Sunnis, who say government is biased

(CNN) -- Thousands of government supporters demonstrated in at least five Shiite provinces in southern Iraq on Tuesday, opposing protests by thousands of people in mainly Sunni provinces that have gone on for more than two weeks.

The demonstrations highlight the country's sectarian tensions.

The Shiite demonstrations took place in Basra, Diwaniyah, Karbala, Al-Muthana and Babil provinces. Demonstrators carried banners reading, "Yes, yes to al-Maliki implementing the constitution" and "No to canceling accountability and justice law," referring to Baathists and opposing protesters' demands in Sunni provinces like Anbar and Salaheddin.

Protesters chanted, "No to sectarianism, no to dividing Iraq, yes to national unity." Some carried Iraqi flags and posters of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is a Shiite. Others carried photographs of relatives who they said were killed in attacks by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq.

Parts of the demonstrations were broadcast on Afaq satellite television, which al-Maliki owns.

Hundreds of pro-government demonstrators took to the streets in Diwaniya province, about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad. There, Shiite cleric Qassim al-Moussawi told the protesters that behind this crisis are "America and Israel" as well as "Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar."

"No to the return of the Baath party and their loyalists, no to the return of mass graves," he shouted. "We reject dividing Iraq into three regions: Sunni, Shiite and Kurd."

Al-Moussawi also called for a comprehensive dialogue among all political parties to achieve stability in Iraq.

The Shiite demonstrations came after ongoing demonstrations in predominantly Sunni provinces inflamed by the arrest of several guards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafei al-Essawi.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators have protested for more than two weeks, demanding that the Shiite-led government stop what they call second-class treatment of Iraq's Sunni community.

They also are demanding the release of detainees they said were held without charges, calling the government corrupt and accusing it of unfairly targeting Iraq's Sunni people.

Sunnis largely boycotted Iraq's 2005 elections, leading to the emergence of a Shiite-led government. The move left the once-ruling minority disaffected, which contributed to years of bloody insurgency and sectarian warfare.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq is closely following the demonstrations, according to a statement released Tuesday. The group supports the political and human rights of all Iraqis, as well their social, cultural and economic rights, in the framework of the rule of law.

The protesters have voiced grievances they see as violations of their human rights. The government has acknowledged that peaceful protest is a constitutionally guaranteed right of all Iraqis.

"We call on the protesters to refrain from violence and to maintain the peaceful character of their demonstrations, and on the security forces to show the utmost restraint in maintaining law and order," said Martin Kobler, the special representative of the United Nations secretary-general.

Kobler said that all sides should engage without delay in a peaceful and constructive dialogue in accordance with the Iraqi Constitution and law.

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