The protesters insist that their motives are not sectarian and that their demands for reforms to a corrupt and abusive judicial system will benefit all Iraqis. There have indeed been scattered sympathy protests in some Shiite towns in the south, and several Shiite politicians, including the mercurial cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, have expressed solidarity with the Sunni demonstrators.
The grievances also are real, as was articulated last week in a Human Rights Watch report condemning the "draconian" measures used by the Maliki government to curtail its opponents. The report cited widespread allegations of abuse within the criminal justice system including torture, the rape of female prisoners and arbitrary arrests, as well as the successful suppression of an earlier attempt to organize Arab Spring-style demonstrations in Baghdad and elsewhere in 2011.
But inevitably in Iraq this outpouring of Sunni frustrations is serving to aggravate the sectarian divide opened up by the ouster of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-minority government and its replacement by one led by Shiites.