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ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - The most senior member of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's entourage still at large has encouraged Sunni Muslim anti-government protesters to stand their ground until Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is toppled.
Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri heads Saddam's Baath party, which was banned after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that overthrew the Sunni dictator and empowered majority Shi'ite Muslims.
Over the past two weeks, tens of thousands of Sunnis, some waving Saddam-era flags, have staged demonstrations in a show of anger against Maliki, whom they accuse of marginalising their community and monopolising power.
"The people of Iraq and all its nationalist and Islamic forces support you until the realisation of your just demands for the fall of the Safavid-Persian alliance," said Douri, addressing the protesters in footage broadcast on Alarabiya television.
Safavid is a reference to the ruling dynasty of Shi'ite Iran from the 16th to 18th centuries that at times also controlled parts of modern-day Iraq.
Since Maliki came to office in 2006, Iraq has edged closer to neighbouring Iran, which wields strong influence over several Iraqi Shi'ite parties.
Surrounded by men in military uniform, Douri said the Baath party leadership was considering launching a campaign to "justly and decisively" punish civilians and soldiers who supported what he described as Iran's "Safavid project" for Iraq.
"It is a clear plan to destroy Iraq and annex it to Iran," he said. "We warn those traitors, agents and spies ... who support the dangerous project ... that the national resistance will confront them before Maliki and his evil alliance".
The authenticity of the video could not be verified. Douri said he was speaking from the Iraqi province of Babil.
After the 2003 invasion, Douri was ranked sixth on the U.S. military's list of 55 most wanted Iraqis and a $10 million reward was offered for his capture. U.S. officials accused him of organizing the insurgency that peaked in 2005-07.
Douri was the deputy head of Iraq's Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam, and took over the Baath Party leadership after Saddam was executed in 2006.
He has seldom been seen since 2003. In a statement in 2009, he called on Sunni insurgent groups to move into politics.
Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Mark Heinrich