Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accused anti-government protesters who have blocked off a key trade route for two weeks of abusing their freedoms and causing "chaos", in a speech on Wednesday.
Maliki said security forces could intervene to end the protests, which have swept Sunni-majority provinces in western and northern Iraq since December 23, but also renewed an offer to consider some of the demonstrators' demands.
The protests were sparked by the December 20 arrest of at least nine guards of Sunni Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi. One has cut the main highway between Baghdad and the Jordanian and Syrian borders.
Demonstrators have accused the Shiite-led authorities of persecuting Iraq's Sunni Arab minority community and have called for the release of prisoners from jails and reform of anti-terror laws.
"Freedom for those who do not understand its meaning is chaos and the law of the jungle," Maliki said in a speech in central Baghdad marking the 91st anniversary of the founding of Iraq's police force.
"There is a difference between a peaceful rally and an act of disobedience, and blocking off a highway.
"Freedom is not when a media outlet turns into a means of juggling and inciting riots and accusing this or that official and offending this or that constituent," he added.
He continued: "There is no country in the world that tolerates a blockade of highways."
Maliki said that cabinet had formed a committee to consider some of the protesters' demands, but added that the security forces could still intervene.
"If rallies go on without permission, or carry banners that compromise national security or private work, security should prevent them," he said.
He charged that there were some who wanted the security forces to step in "to clash with protesters, so that they can say there is dictatorship in Iraq".
"We are not being unjust and we do not want anyone to be treated unfairly but we cannot accept imposition or being dictated to," the premier said.
The demonstrations have largely been split along sectarian lines -- pro-government rallies in southern Iraq have been predominantly Shiite and protests in northern and western Iraq mostly Sunni.
But powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has publicly backed the anti-government rallies.
The demonstrations come barely three months before provincial council elections, the country's first vote since parliamentary polls in March 2010.