BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces backed by helicopters raided a Sunni protest camp before dawn Tuesday, prompting clashes that killed at least 36 people in the area and significantly intensified Sunni anger against the Shiite-led government.
The fighting broke out in the former insurgent stronghold of Hawija, about 240 kilometers (160 miles) north of Baghdad. Like many predominantly Sunni communities, the town has seen months of rallies by protesters accusing the government of neglect and pursuing a sectarian agenda.
Sectarian tensions have been intensifying for months, pressured by Sunni protests that began in December and what officials fear is a strengthening of al-Qaida and other Sunni-backed militants. Hawija was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between U.S. and Iraqi forces who faced frequent deadly attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents. That raises fears that the growing anger among Sunnis could lead to a new round of violence.
Underscoring the government's concern over the incident, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki swiftly announced the formation of a special ministerial committee to investigate what happened in Hawija.
Iraq's Defense Ministry said 23 people were killed in Hawija, including three soldiers.
In an apparent response to the morning raid, militants tried to storm two army posts in the nearby town of Rashad, and six of them were killed, according to the Defense Ministry. Seven other militants were killed while trying to attack military positions in another town, Riyadh, according to police and hospital officials.
Outrage soon spread through other Sunni parts of the country, including the restive western Anbar province, where demonstrators took to the streets and clashed with police.
The United Nations envoy to Iraq, Martin Kobler, strongly condemned the use of violence in an emotional plea for restraint at a news conference in Kirkuk, not far from Hawija.
"I'm saddened but I'm also angered that it was not possible to prevent this tragedy," he said. "We deplore the loss of life on both sides, but in particular, more died on the side of the demonstrators. This is a tragedy ... and I'm so upset."
As news of Tuesday's raid spread, calls went out through mosque loudspeakers in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, urging residents to protest in solidarity with fellow Sunnis in Hawija. About 1,000 protesters took to the streets in the western city, where anger at the government is particularly strong. Some chanted "War, war," as security forces fanned out in the streets.
In nearby Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, protesters threw stones at a military convoy. One army Humvee was overturned and set ablaze in the clashes, according to witnesses.
The Defense Ministry described 20 of those killed in the Hawija raid as "militants who were using the demonstration as a safe haven." It said the militants were members of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party, and said an army officer and two soldiers were also killed in the clashes.
Sheik Abdullah Sami al-Asi, a Sunni provincial official from Hawija, said the fighting began early in the morning when security forces entered the protest area and tried to make arrests. He said scores of people were wounded or killed.
Amateur video posted on YouTube by protest supporters and said to be from Hawija show dozens of troops in riot gear and at least four anti-riot water cannon trucks face off against a group of men. Many of the civilians were carrying swords and wearing traditional tribal scarves over their faces. Security forces could be heard urging them to retreat as a helicopter hovered overhead.
It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the video, but it appeared consistent with Associated Press reporting of the incident.
The raid occurred four days after a checkpoint jointly run by the police and army near Hawija came under attack, and militants seized a number of weapons before retreating into the crowd of protesters, according to the Defense Ministry.
That led to a standoff with security forces, at times, trying to negotiate with local and tribal officials the handover of those involved in the raid.
The Defense Ministry said it warned demonstrators to leave the protest area before moving in early Tuesday, and that large numbers of protesters left the site. As Iraqi forces tried to make arrests, they came under heavy fire from several types of weapons and were targeted by snipers, according to the Defense Ministry account.
Security forces detained 75 people and seized multiple weapons, including machine guns, hand grenades, knives, daggers and swords, the ministry said.
Iraq's Interior Ministry spokesman, Lt. Col. Saad Maan Ibrahim, said the security forces were backed by helicopters, but no airstrikes occurred.
Protests against the Shiite-dominated government began in western Iraq in December following the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi. The rallies quickly spread to other areas that are home to Iraq's minority Sunni Arabs, including Hawija.
Demonstrators are protesting alleged discrimination by the government, including the application of a tough anti-terrorism law that they believe unfairly targets their sect.
The protests have been largely peaceful, though there have been occasional incidents of violence. In January, at least five protesters were killed in clashes with security forces in Fallujah.
The violence comes three days after Iraqis in much of the country cast ballots for provincial officials. Voting was delayed in Anbar and Ninevah provinces, which have faced large protests, because of what the government said were concerns about security.
The Cabinet announced Tuesday that voting is now scheduled in those provinces for July 4.
Also Tuesday, two bombs went off near a Sunni mosque in the southern Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, killing seven worshippers and wounding 17, police and health officials said. The worshippers were leaving the mosque after morning prayers at around 5:00 a.m. when the bombs exploded simultaneously, two police officers said.
A medical official confirmed the causality figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed reporting. Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at http://twitter.com/adamschreck and Sinan Salaheddin at http://twitter.com/sinansm