By Kamal Naama
RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqis in Sunni provinces boycotted government offices, closed shops and deserted universities on Monday in the latest protests by the minority sect which fears it is being marginalized by Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Streets in the Sunni-majority provinces of Anbar, Nineveh and Salahuddin were mostly empty after people shuttered their shops or stayed away from work in what protest leaders said was an attempt to put pressure on Baghdad.
Iraqi politics are deeply divided along sectarian lines, with Maliki's government mired in crisis over how to share power among Shi'ite Muslims, the largest group, Sunnis and ethnic Kurds who run their own autonomous region in the north.
"Today's action is a first step towards pressuring the government to meet our demands and a warning to security forces not to touch our protests," said Mohammed Saleh al-Bijari, spokesman for the demonstrations, in Falluja, western Iraq.
In Mosul, 390 km (240 miles) north of Baghdad, schools and colleges closed after most students left classes early. Most government offices were also empty.
"We decided to take action today to show solidarity with the protesters. The government should consider our rightful demands," said Manhal Makki, a shop owner in Mosul.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, many Sunnis feel they have been sidelined by the Shi'ite leadership and unfairly targeted by tough anti-terrorism laws.
Sunnis have called for reforms to those laws and to a campaign to keep former members of Saddam's outlawed Baath party out of government posts.
Saddam, a Sunni himself, often brutally suppressed Shi'ite and ethnic Kurdish political movements during his regime until the invasion allowed the Shi'ite majority to rise to power through the ballot box.
Maliki has made concessions, but protesters who have been taking to the streets since December are demanding more and are deeply split among themselves.
Iraqis voted for provincial councils on Saturday in their first ballot since U.S. troops left the country, a key measure of political stability before parliamentary elections next year.
But the government suspended the elections in Anbar and Nineveh provinces because of threats to election workers and violence in those areas, a move moderate Sunni leaders and diplomats fear will further alienate Sunnis.
Violence and suicide bombings have surged since the start of the year, with an al Qaeda wing vowing to stoke sectarian confrontation among Shi'ites, Sunni Muslims and ethnic Kurds.
In one flashpoint, in the town of Hawija near the northern city of Kirkuk, Sunni protesters have been surrounded by the army since Friday, following clashes between troops and demonstrators that killed two people on Friday.
Security forces want to search the area for weapons they suspect were seized from a checkpoint. Officials say troops were attacked by protesters, but protest leaders dismissed reports they were armed, blaming soldiers for the deaths.
"We're tired of these daily sit-ins and demonstrations - every day we have a new drama," said a Falluja food store owner, one of the few to open his doors to customers. "I just want to earn a living."
(Additional reporting by Sufyan al-Mashhadani in Mosul, Ghazwan Hassan in Salahuddin and Mustafa Mohmoud in Kirkuk; writing by Aseel Kami; Editing by Patrick Markey and Mike Collett-White)