RAMADI, Iraq - The call to prayer echoes across the quiet highway in western Iraq and a few hundred men gather along the roadside in the frigid night air. Each has a story to tell: a father whose son languishes in jail without trial; a veteran who cannot get a job; a student so terrified of the police that he avoids Baghdad.
In the morning, they know the area will fill with thousands of people like them, with stories like their own. Under the flutter of tribal flags, they will shout boisterously the same words heard from protesters across the Arab world: Down with the regime.
Something has broken. Much of Iraq's minority Sunni Muslim population appears to have run out of patience with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a religious Shiite Muslim who has ruled since 2006. In recent weeks, Sunnis by the thousands have carried out a campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience, closing off the main roads to Fallujah and Ramadi in the west and mounting demonstrations in Samarra, Baghdad and Mosul.
The rallies are a testament to problems left unresolved when the U.S. military campaign ended here, and to the new tension that has spread throughout the Middle East. Angry citizens of other countries have overthrown entrenched rulers through street protests or armed revolt. In neighboring Syria, Sunnis have risen up as well, forming the backbone of the insurgency against President Bashar Assad.
Though the protests have taken Iraq by surprise, they were triggered by two events no different from many in recent years that have left Sunnis feeling like second-class citizens: news reports about the rape of a woman in prison and the arrest of a local politician's bodyguards. But the original causes no longer matter; they have mushroomed into a larger outrage.
The protest leaders' goal is quixotic: draw support from across Iraq's sectarian divide for fundamental change of the political culture. But they face a minefield of religious and historical grievances.
Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, many key events in Iraq have started in Anbar province, the western desert region that is home to more than 1.5 million Sunnis. Here the first wave of resistance to the American occupation emerged, followed by the rise of the virulent sectarianism of the Sunni-based group al-Qaida in Iraq and, finally, the defeat of al-Qaida by tribal fighters fed up with the militants living in their midst.
Iraq's next turbulent phase has begun with these protests. They spring from the cumulative effects of 10 years of war and turmoil: poor services and government neglect, relatives detained for years without charges, the visible dichotomy between Baghdad's circles of power, and the poverty and struggles of ordinary people.
The old ways used by the al-Maliki regime to subdue the population _ a mixture of security raids and patronage offered to a select few _ no longer seem to work.
The protests could lead to a stronger, united Iraq that rallies Shiites and Sunnis around the shared goal of ending the corruption and human rights abuses of the governments that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein. But they could just as easily kick off a period of violence that might threaten to break up of the country.
Checkpoints have been tightened around Baghdad's Sunni neighborhoods. Rumors are rife: People speak of police preventing cars from entering the capital from Sunni areas; some expect al-Maliki to impose a curfew. Others whisper of a run on guns.
At a recent Friday protest in Ramadi, a young poet sang about the seat of power in Baghdad: "They are hiding in the Green Zone. All suffering and problems come from the Green Zone. They are slaves of foreigners."
Young men hoisted one another up on shoulders, some of them bare-chested, all thrusting their fists high in disgust and defiance at politicians, Sunni and Shiite alike. The singer, with glasses sliding off his nose, recited harsher words, his voice trembling in a whine, and drew more applause. "Baghdad is for us."
The protest leaders, including representatives of the tribes, former security officers, professionals and clerics, are aware they sit atop a volcano of rage. And they know that extremists and political parties alike, from al-Qaida and the old Baath Party to Sunni politicians and even the al-Maliki government, wish to exploit their movement. But the leadership in Ramadi and Fallujah, where the protests originated, want nothing less than to drive the political elite from power.
All say the words like a lament: America handed Iraq on a plate to politicians in the pay of Shiite-dominated Iran and other powers. They want to guarantee that Baghdad never again treats them as second-class citizens. They worry that if Syria's Assad, an ally of Tehran, is overthrown, then Iran will try to exert greater influence in Iraq.
The protesters' leadership committees say they are planning for a year or more of demonstrations, and the thousands gathered on the highway outside Ramadi leave little doubt about their ability to mobilize. Their wishes transcend sectarian goals, with the call to free prisoners, provide more employment and end corruption. Shiite religious leaders, including cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, have voiced support for their aims. Delegations from Shiite tribes have visited the rallies.
"We are demanding the rights of Samawa, Kufa and Najaf," said Sheik Khalid Jumaili, one of the leaders of the Fallujah protests, listing the names of mostly Shiite cities. He makes it clear that the protests' aim of taking the country back from Iraq's reigning political class gives no quarter to Sunnis. "There is no exception. All the politicians are sectarian."
But the legacy of Saddam's Sunni-led regime and the subsequent civil war between Sunnis and Shiites has hampered efforts to turn the protests into a nationwide movement. Al-Maliki has labeled the effort sectarian, and some Shiites fear that the Sunni demonstrations will augur a new civil war.
A nostalgia for Saddam is woven into the crowds, with some waving the 1990s-era Iraqi flag. The display articulates a belief that while the past was terrible, the present is far worse. However, their rage is stunningly blind to Shiite memories.
Sunni and Shiite moderates appear hobbled by the fear that if they reach out too aggressively to the other sect, they will be discredited by their own community's extremists.
The danger is a stalemate that will fuel the violence everyone fears, cost moderates credibility and trigger the gradual breakdown of Iraq into separate Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.
At the front of the demonstrations in Anbar province are tribal leaders such as Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman, the crown prince of the Dulaimis, an early fighter against al-Qaida in Iraq in 2006. He is emblematic of the Sunni rift with al-Maliki: He broke with the prime minister, his former friend, in 2010, disillusioned by the perceived sectarian tenor of al-Maliki's politics.
Suleiman is clear about what the demonstrations should be: They must remain peaceful and win over the Shiites as the movement seeks a government that does not abuse its power. At times, Suleiman has stumbled, briefly threatening violence two weeks ago after the army killed five protesters in Fallujah.
The challenges of making the protesters' goals a reality were evident in a recent protest in Ramadi. A few Shiite sheiks from Nasiriya were visiting, and even as they proclaimed their support for the demonstrators' goals, four youths hurled water bottles and derided them as allies of al-Maliki. The incensed sheiks bolted from the stage and were hurried off by their bodyguard in blue camouflage.
Suleiman raced to their cars, begging their forgiveness: "Come to my house. I apologize." If you can't control a few people, how can you lead this movement, one sheik replied before they sped off, though some Shiite tribal leaders stayed behind.
Later, Suleiman mounted the stage in a fury.
"I need you to promise me what happened today will never happen again," he rasped, his fist in the air. The young men in the crowd raised their hands in a pledge.