Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis have staged demonstrations, and in Anbar province they have blocked a highway to Syria in a show of anger against Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalizing their community and monopolizing power.

The discontent is real, but the protests are driven by Sunni Islamist parties bent on carving out an autonomous region akin to the Kurdish one in the north, Kurdish and Sunni sources say.

They say the Sunni Islamists scent an opportunity to escape what they see as Shi’ite domination, counting on a victory by Sunni rebels trying to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite minority has its roots in Shi’ite Islam…

Some waving Saddam-era Iraqi flags, protesters have echoed the chants of Arab uprisings that have brought down leaders in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen in the past two years.

“We will never relent. Enough of Sunnis living in Iraq like outsiders. This time it’s do or die for us,” said Jamal Adham, a tribal leader from Saddam’s former hometown of Tikrit.