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Iraqi Sunnis stage protests against 'discrimination'

image captionThousands of Sunni Muslims pray on the main road in Ramadi, centre of the recent demonstrations against the government

Tens of thousands of Sunni Muslims in Iraq have been staging anti-government protests in Baghdad and other cities.

It is is the latest in two weeks of protests over alleged discrimination.

They are also calling for the release of female detainees they say have been arrested in place of husbands or sons wanted on charges of terrorism.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has urged security forces to show restraint in their handling of the demonstrations.

The protests highlight the belief of many Sunnis that they are second-class citizens in their country.

The focus for the demonstrations has been Ramadi in the west, but on Friday there were also marches in the capital Baghdad and in Mosul in the north.

The Sunni campaign began shortly after the arrest of bodyguards of the Finance Minister Rafie al-Issawi, a Sunni member of the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who is a Shia.

Mr Issawi is the most high profile Sunni in the cabinet following the dismissal in 2011 of Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, who has been sentenced to death in absentia on charges of running death squads.

Mr Hashemi denied the charges but fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq before moving to Turkey.

Sunnis believe they are disadvantaged in getting jobs, that the laws are unequally applied and that Mr Maliki's government is in the sway of Shia Iran.

In a mosque in a Sunni district of Baghdad, there were loud cries of "Iran out" and "Nouri Maliki is a liar" after midday prayers.

Police prevented the demonstrators from leaving the compound to protest on the street, AFP reports.

In a statement read out on national television, Mr Maliki called on security forces not to target peaceful protesters nor to give what he called terrorist organisations a pretext for armed confrontation.

He urged demonstrators to avoid acts of civil disobedience.

Mr Maliki warned that what he called "foreign agendas" sought to push Iraq towards sectarian conflict.

The demonstrators say theirs is not a sectarian conflict - simply one against Mr Maliki and Iran.

The protests this week have coincided with a string of attacks targeting security forces and Shia gatherings.

On Thursday, 20 Shia pilgrims were killed in a bomb attack south of Baghdad as they were returning from a religious festival.