Baghdad — Clashes erupted early on Tuesday between Sunni demonstrators and security forces in a northern Sunni town in Iraq, killing at least 14 people and wounding dozens in an escalation likely to enrage anti-government protesters who have been rallying for months.
The fighting broke out in the town of Hawijah, about 240km north of Baghdad. It is one of several overwhelmingly Sunni communities across Iraq that have been the site of months of sustained anti-government protests.
The provincial health director for the area, Sidiq Omar Rasool, said 14 civilians have been killed and more than 50 are wounded. He said another six members of the Iraqi security forces were also wounded.
Two Iraqi army officials reported that as many as 20 people have been killed. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorised to release the information to journalists.
Sheikh 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 have been wounded or killed.
The Defence Ministry issued a statement saying that Iraqi security forces were killed along with what it described as militants from al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.
On Friday, a checkpoint jointly run by the police and army near the town came under attack, and militants seized a number of weapons before retreating into the crowd of protesters, according to the Defence 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 Defence Ministry said it warned demonstrators to leave the protest area before moving in early on 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 Defence Ministry account.
A United Nations spokesperson in Iraq, Eliana Nabaa, confirmed that there are multiple casualties. She urged both sides to immediately lay down their weapons.
Protests against the Shi'ite-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 Hawijah.
Claims of neglect
The Sunni demonstrators are protesting what they call unfair treatment by the Shi'ite-led government.
After the 2003 US-led invasion, the Sunni Arab-dominated town of Hawija was considered one of the dangerous areas for both American and Iraqi forces where they faced lethal attacks by different groups of Sunni militants mainly al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Like in other Sunni towns, its residents accuse the Shi'ite-led governments in Baghdad of neglecting them and practicing sectarian agenda. They also oppose the Kurds' ambitions to annex nearby Kirkuk to their three-province autonomous region.
Also on Tuesday, two bombs went off near a Sunni mosque in the southern Bagdad neighbourhood of Dora, killing five worshipers and wounding 21, police and health officials said. The worshippers were leaving the mosque after morning prayers at around 05:00 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 authorised to release information.