Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Sunday that an anti-government sit-in has become a headquarters for Al-Qaeda, and called for protesters to depart before security forces move in.
If security forces move against the site, where Sunni Arab demonstrators have gathered for almost a year, it would likely inflame widespread discontent among the minority community and could add to the already-rampant violence plaguing the country.
Maliki's remarks came a day after a disastrous military operation against militants in the mostly Sunni Anbar province west of Baghdad, in which five senior officers and 10 other soldiers were killed.
The protest site is located near the Anbar city of Ramadi, while the operation took place elsewhere in the province.
"I say clearly and honestly that the sit-in site in Anbar has turned into a headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda," Maliki, a Shiite, said in remarks broadcast Sunday on Iraqiya state TV.
"We now have a headquarters for Al-Qaeda leading the armed operations against Iraq and the Iraqi people, and this is something about which we cannot be silent," he said.
Maliki called on "those who are with them in this place who refuse sabotage and who have legal or illegal demands ... to leave these camps, and leave this place, so that Al-Qaeda stays alone," adding that protesters had a "very short period" in which to leave.
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He called on security forces to take a "firm stance to end the headquarters of Al-Qaeda, which has become a danger not only for Anbar, but for Iraq in general."
Demonstrations broke out in Sunni-majority areas of Iraq at the end of last year, after security forces arrested guards of then-finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, an influential Sunni Arab politician, on terrorism charges.
The arrests were seen by Iraqi Sunnis as the latest example of the Shiite-led government targeting one of their leaders.
But the demonstrations have tapped into deeper grievances, with Sunnis saying they are both marginalised by the Shiite-led government and unfairly targeted with heavy-handed tactics by security forces.
Sunni discontent has been a key factor in the escalating unrest in Iraq this year, boosting recruitment for militant groups, pushing them to carry out attacks and eroding cooperation with security forces.
But while the government has made some concessions aimed at placating Sunni Arabs, including freeing prisoners and raising the salaries of anti-Al-Qaeda fighters, underlying issues remain unaddressed.
The last major security operation at a protest site, which took place near the northern town of Hawijah on April 23, sparked clashes in which dozens of people were killed.
Nationwide death tolls from violence spiked, reaching a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings.
The violence, which was been further exacerbated by the civil war in neighbouring Syria, has killed more than 6,600 people since the beginning of 2013, according to AFP figures.