Shias begin counter pro-government protests in Iraq
Thousands of loyalists took to the streets of southern Iraq on Tuesday to show their support for the country's Shia prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, AFP reported on Tuesday.
According to the report, Tuesday's pro-government rallies took place in predominantly Shia areas, including the port city of Basra and the southern cities of Kut, Diwaniyah, Karbala and Samawa. Numbers of demonstrators ranged from 700 in Kut to thousands in Basra.
The pro-government demonstrations follow over two weeks of opposition protests in the mainly Sunni north and west of the country.
The Sunni protests were triggered by the arrest of at least nine guards of Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi, a top member of the secular Sunni-backed party that is part of Maliki's unity government but is frequently critical of the Prime Minister.
Anti-government demonstrators say al-Maliki has abused counter-terror legislation to persecute the minority Sunni community.
Loyalist protestors on Tuesday dismissed calls for reform of anti-terror laws and condemned the alleged involvement of other Middle Eastern countries in the opposition rallies.
Meanwhile, opposition protests continued elsewhere in the country, while the anti-government sit-in in the western province of Anbar that started on December 23, continued to block a key highway linking Iraq to Syria and Jordan on Tuesday.
A government source told AFP that several Sunni and Kurdish ministers boycotted Tuesday's weekly cabinet meeting in protest.
The rival rallies sweeping Iraq come just three months before Iraqis are given their first political vote in three years in the provincial council elections.