RAMADI, Iraq Shortly before noon every Friday, men and boys with prayer rugs in hand walk by the thousands through the main highway junction 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 huge 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 sheiks 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, 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 service summed up the mood: "Beware the patient man, if he gets angry."
Ten years after the U.S.-led invasion, Iraq is still broken. Its government is democratically elected but nearly all see it as dysfunctional, and many observers wonder whether the country can hold together and function.
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 whole country.
So far, al-Maliki has avoided direct confrontation and acquiesced to traffic being rerouted over secondary roads, even though the protest blocks the main highway linking Baghdad with Jordan.
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, 30 percent of Iraq's 31.1 million population, resent that al-Maliki, a Shiite, has taken direct or indirect charge of all security portfolios. They charge that he's used the security forces to intimidate top Sunni politicians and to carry out many dubious arrests.
Sunnis also resent the influence Shiite-ruled Iran has over Iraqi policy, and they're embittered at al-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 al-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. Last 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 systems, and is viewed as one of the most corrupt on Earth.
Not all of Iraq's problems are of al-Maliki's doing. Many were identified during the nine years the United States controlled the country, something American officials in Iraq 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, administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, to ban Saddam's Baath Party, dismantle Iraq's military and fire higher-level Baath officials from government ministries. The move cost many Sunnis employment and their pensions, and it helped fuel the Sunni insurgency against the U.S. occupation.
Where al-Maliki gets direct blame, however, is the way he conducted himself after 2010's elections, 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, al-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, al-Maliki sent tanks into the capital's so-called Green Zone, the 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. Al-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.
Al-Maliki also unleashed a wave of arrests of Sunnis for allegedly supporting terrorism.
Allawi told McClatchy that al-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 counsel, and used torture to extract confessions.