The Associated Press
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.
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