BAGHDAD — Iraq's Shiite prime minister called on his Sunni political rivals Tuesday not to withdraw from the government and parliament over the dismantling of a protest camp that led to deadly clashes in a major western city, as he sought to contain Sunni unrest in the country.
More than 40 Sunni lawmakers submitted their resignations from parliament and Sunni ministers threatened to withdraw from the Cabinet over the unrest in the western province of Anbar. Seven gunmen and three police officers were killed in clashes Monday as security forces took down tents and cleared a Sunni sit-in in its provincial capital, Ramadi.
Sunnis have been staging protests since last December against what they consider as second-class treatment by the Shiite-led government and against tough anti-terrorism measures they say target their sect. The government and some tribal leaders in Anbar accused the protests of offering shelter for al-Qaida local branch to recruit people and plan for attacks.
"I call upon politicians to adopt wise stances and not emotional ones away from any move that could help al-Qaida, terrorists and sectarian partisans," al-Maliki said in a statement.
Al-Maliki also said that the Iraqi army will hand over control of cities in Anbar province to the local police, a main demand from discontented Sunni politicians who see the army as a tool in the hand of al-Maliki to target his rivals and consolidate power.
The unrest in Anbar followed the weekend arrest of a Sunni lawmaker, Ahmed al-Alwani, who has been prominent among the organizers of the protests. Al-Alwani is sought on terrorism charges for inciting violence against Shiites who came to power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ended Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. His brother, five guards and two troops were killed in exchange of fire with security forces when his entourage resisted the arrest.
At the same time, government forces have waged an offensive this month to hunt down al-Qaida fighters in the deserts of Anbar in a bid to stem the violence that has been on rise since the beginning of this year. More than 8,000 people have been killed in Iraq the past year, according to U.N. estimates.
The moves in Anbar raise risks of an increased backlash by Iraq's Sunni minority. The Iraq branch of al-Qaida, known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, issued a statement Tuesday vowing solidarity with Anbar's Sunnis.
"We and the people of Anbar are standing as a solid block against the wolves trying to move forward," it said. "The people of Anbar will not accept humiliation."
But Baghdad-based political analyst Hadi Jalo said he doubts the latest events will increase violence, but on the contrary "will help creating moderate Sunni groups" willing to work with the Shiite leadership. He pointed to the complaints by many Anbar Sunnis over the economic damage from the continuing protest and the presence of al-Qaida sympathizers. Also, many Sunnis are wary of boycotting the political process, even if they feel they are discriminated against under it, since past attempts to do so left them shut out of power entirely.
"Al-Maliki has achieved a victory on both the personal and national levels," Jalo said. He said Sunni politicians are likely not serious in their resignation threats, calling them a "mere electoral show for their community."
With latest anti-al-Qaida offensives, the arrest of al-Alwani and the end of the protest, he "has strengthened the role of the army and created a new political equation ahead of next year election," he said.
Violence continued on Tuesday.
The deadliest took place in Baghdad's eastern Shiite district of Zafaraniyah, where two parked car bombs ripped through a commercial area simultaneously, killing six civilians and wounding 16, a police officer said. Four other civilians were killed and eight wounded when mortar shells landed in a residential area in the southeastern Madain area, another police officer said.
Other car bombings and attacks in Baghdad killed three civilians and a policeman, wounding six people, police said.
Five policemen, four soldiers and seven gunmen were killed when clashes erupted in two places in Ramadi, a police officer said.
Medical officials confirmed causality figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
Today's attacks brought the total death toll so far this month to 537, according to a tally by The Associated Press.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report from Baghdad.