Protesters Block Key Iraq Highway, Maliki Slams Demos

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Iraqi protesters demonstrating against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blocked a key highway to Syria and Jordan for the sixth consecutive day on Friday, which the premier slammed as unacceptable.

Demonstrators called for Maliki to resign after he called for dialogue, while security forces barred Baghdad-based journalists from entering the province where the biggest protests were being held.

Major demonstrations have taken place this week in the mostly-Sunni provinces of Nineveh and Salaheddin, but the biggest rallies have been in Anbar, west of Baghdad, following the arrest of at least nine of Sunni Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi's guards.

On Friday, protesters in Ramadi, Anbar's provincial capital, called for the release of prisoners they allege were arrested on sectarian grounds by Iraq's Shiite-led authorities, while some held banners that read, "Get out, Maliki".

"The Iraqi people are united," read a statement issued by one of the groups organising the protest, the Coordination Committees of the Revolution.

"They do not need a conference for reconciliation supervised by a sectarian prime minister."

Protesters have been demonstrating in Ramadi since Sunday, steadfastly blocking the main highway to Syria and Jordan for the past six days.

Though local police were at the scene of the Friday protest, searches of those entering the rally site were carried out by organizers, and no soldiers appeared to be present.

Iraqi army units did, however, bar Baghdad-based journalists from entering Anbar province, holding teams of journalists at a checkpoint between Baghdad and Ramadi for more than five hours.

They also confiscated their press badges, promising only to return them if they turned back to Baghdad.

A senior Iraqi security official said that there were "strong preventative measures to protect the demonstrators", but Agence France Presse journalists witnessed dozens of cars pass through the checkpoint where they were held with no questioning whatsoever.

Maliki argued in a speech in Baghdad that countries "must rely on civil means of expression," adding that "cutting roads and stirring sectarian strife" is "not acceptable".

He said that it is instead better that "we talk and we agree at the table of brotherhood and love in ending our problems and differences, and that we listen to each other".

The demonstrations began on Sunday after Essawi's guards were arrested by security forces on December 20 on terrorism charges, leading the minister, a leading member of the secular, Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, to call for Maliki to resign or be removed.

Iraqiya and other members of Maliki's unstable national unity government have accused him in the past year of concentrating power in his hands and moving towards dictatorship.

The arrest of Essawi's guards came almost exactly a year after Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi's guards were arrested and accused of terrorism.

Hashemi has since been given multiple death sentences in absentia on charges including murder, while death sentences have also been handed to his guards as well.

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