Shortly before noon every Friday, men and boys with prayer rugs in hand tromp by the thousands through the main highway junction in the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, head down lanes meant for vehicular traffic and stake out patches of pavement. Soon they're prostrating themselves as far as the eye can see.
It's a massive show of civil disobedience that's the most visible form of protests by Iraq's Sunni Muslim minority against the Shiite Muslim-led government in Baghdad.
U.S. forces will remember Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, as one of Iraq's worst killing grounds, a place where Sunni supporters of Saddam Hussein gave way to al Qaida in Iraq, which all but governed the province until tribal sheikhs rebelled at the same time that the U.S. troop "surge" was beginning in 2007. Of the 4,486 Americans who died in Operation Iraqi Freedom, 30 percent fell in Anbar.
The province remains in rebellion, though a peaceful one.
Along both shoulders of the road, the tribal leaders have erected more than 100 canvas tents, where they display posters with their 17 demands, all couched as fitting within current legal order. There s a threat, however, of other means: A hand-painted banner at a political rally that followed a recent religious servicesummed up the mood best: "Beware the patient man, if he gets angry."
Ten years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq is still a broken country. Its government is democratically elected, but nearly everyone sees it as dysfunctional, and many observers wonder whether the country can hold together and function as a normal state. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is widely criticized for what critics call his manipulation of the political process, though they concede that at least some of the problems he faces were inherited from the U.S. occupation.
Everyone is watching to see how he handles the Sunni protest in Anbar, which will have consequences for the country as a whole.
So far, Maliki has avoided direct confrontation and acquiesced to traffic being rerouted over secondary roads, even though the protest here blocks the main highway linking Baghdad with Jordan.
He's denounced the protesters as "bubbleheads," provoking a furor, but he's also set up several committees to examine their demands, which are widely seen elsewhere in Iraq as legitimate. Among them: releasing all women held without charges on suspicion of aiding terrorists, moving detainees charged with crimes to provincial prisons, releasing male detainees arrested without charges, closing down military commands that Maliki set up without parliamentary approval, withdrawing the army from cities and limiting any prime minister's tenure to two five-year terms.
Still, many in Anbar think that Maliki has gone out of his way to humiliate Sunnis, and the reaction is a rejection of the government and even of parliamentary representation.
The tension is great. The flags waving over the Ramadi highway are not the banner the new Iraq adopted after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003, but those that flew here when Saddam ruled.
Clearly, the central government would prefer that the rebellion receive no attention. A McClatchy reporter traveling to Ramadi was kept for seven hours at a military checkpoint on March 7 before being allowed to proceed. The next day, military authorities announced that foreign reporters were banned from traveling to Ramadi.
"We are not opposing the government," said Rahim Khalil, 19, one of the protesters here. "We are at war with the government."
A group of college students shot their hands into the air when a visiting reporter asked whether they'd prefer Saddam to the present government.
"In Saddam's day, there was a government and law. Now there is no real government, or law," one said.
Members of al Qaida in Iraq also attend the rallies. After the recent religious service and the political rally ended, the stage, which straddled the eastbound half of the highway, was open, and a small group of men who'd been hovering in the background, carrying black, jihadist flags, emerged. They announced that it was "time for al Qaida to come and start the beheadings." Tribal leaders quickly ushered them off.
At the heart of the protest is the vast sectarian divide that splits Iraq, and the rest of the Middle East, between Sunni and Shiite. The Sunnis, who make up some 30 percent of Iraq's 31.1 million population, resent that Maliki, a Shiite, has taken direct or indirect charge of all the security portfolios. They charge that he's used the security forces to intimidate top Sunni politicians and to carry out a wave of arrests on dubious grounds.
Sunnis also resent the influence that Shiite-ruled Iran has over Iraqi policy, and they're embittered at Maliki's posture of "neutrality" in the Syrian rebellion, which they interpret as a fig leaf for support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, a follower of the Alawite branch of Shiism.
It's not just Sunnis who are angry with Maliki, however. Ethnic Kurds, who compose at least 15 percent of the population, are enraged at his refusal to resolve issues regarding revenue sharing and oil sales by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government. This past week, Kurdish ministers boycotted the Cabinet meeting over the government's decision to approve a budget without Kurdish concurrence.
There's even trouble among Shiites, who make up at least 60 percent of the population. Many are fed up with a government that has enormous income on tap from the country's oil resources but has failed to deliver electricity, clean water and sewage, and is viewed as one of the most corrupt on Earth.
In the absence of economic and banking reforms, government spending dominates the economy, borrowing for local businesses is highly limited, there's only a limited real estate market and some 40 percent of the working-age population is unemployed or underemployed.
Maliki attracts critics these days like a lightning rod. In a new book, "Iraq: From War to a New Authoritarianism," British scholar Toby Dodge wrote that "such a weak and obviously corrupt state could, once again, provide a breeding ground for increased political violence." The great danger for Iraq, he said, is that its democracy "will be swept aside because its institutions are not valued, or seen as worth defending."
Not all of Iraq's current problems are of Maliki's doing. Many were identified during the nine years the U.S. controlled the country, something American officials here acknowledge. They blame in part a U.S. focus on trying to win Iraqi support for permanent military bases, or at least a robust security presence, rather than resolving problems.
They note, for example, that Sunni dissatisfaction is still fed by the decision in 2003 by L. Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to ban Saddam's Baath Party, dismantle the Iraqi military and fire higher-level Baath officials from government ministries. The move cost many Sunnis not only their employment but also their pensions, and it helped fuel the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. occupation.
Where Maliki gets direct blame, however, is the way he conducted himself after the elections of 2010, when he agreed to head an all-party government with his chief rival, Ayad Allawi, a Shiite who nevertheless had wide Sunni backing. Instead of governing jointly with Allawi, however, Maliki took charge of the top security posts, then went after his political rivals.
Within days of U.S. forces leaving the country in December 2011, Maliki sent tanks into the capital's so-called Green Zone, the heavily fortified area where leading politicians live, and arrested bodyguards of the Sunni vice president, Tareq al Hashemi, whom he later accused of plotting bombings against civilian targets. Hashemi fled, first to Iraq's Kurdish north, then to Turkey, where he remains. In September, an Iraqi court sentenced him, in absentia, to death.
Maliki also unleashed a wave of arrests of Sunnis for allegedly supporting terrorism. Allawi told McClatchy that Maliki's security services had locked up more than 1,000 members of other political parties, detaining them in secret locations with no access to legal council, and used torture to extract confessions.
What sparked the latest Sunni protests was the arrest Dec. 19 of more than 100 security guards in the detail of Rafi al Issawi, Maliki's finance minister and a Sunni. Many Iraqis saw the arrests as a likely prelude to the detention of Issawi himself. The blockade of the road began within days. On March 1, Issawi resigned, announcing his decision at Friday prayers in Ramadi.
Maliki's government says it's tried to respond to some of the protesters' demands, releasing some people who'd been rounded up for terrorism. But few Sunnis think it's enough.
"He responded to some of the 17 points," said Khamis Abtan, a member of the Ramadi city council, and a political moderate. "He freed some of the innocent people, who were already set to be released. At the same time, he detained many new innocent people," he told McClatchy.
Allawi is bitter. He said there were probably 100 members of his own party, the Iraqi National Accord, still in government jails, and possibly thousands from his Iraqiya coalition.
Moreover, he said members of his alliance increasingly were targeted for assassination. "Every single week, we are losing one or two or three people killed, assassinated. For the last four weeks," he said.
If anyone doubts the ill-treatment of political detainees in jail, an Amnesty International report earlier this week documented widespread practices that in almost any advanced Western country would lead to a mistrial.
"Torture and other abuse of detainees has been one of the most persistent and widespread features of Iraq's human rights landscape, and the government shows little inclination either to recognize its extent or take the measures necessary to consign such grave abuses to the past," the report said.
In short, the protesters in Ramadi will have cause to remain on the highway for some time to come.