BAGHDAD — Iraqi troops opened fire on stone-throwing Sunni demonstrators in the country's restive west on Friday, leading to the deaths of at least five protesters — the first fatalities in more than a month of anti-government rallies. Two soldiers were killed, apparently in retaliation.
The violence is likely to exacerbate tensions between the Shiite-led government and minority Sunnis angry over perceived second-class treatment and what they see as unfair policies targeting their sect.
Hours after the shooting, police said gunmen attacked an army checkpoint, killing the soldiers, in apparent payback for the earlier bloodshed. At least one army vehicle was set ablaze, and dozens of civilian gunmen were seen roaming the streets before local authorities imposed a curfew in the city.
The protest was part of a wave of rallies that first erupted in Anbar province last month after the arrests of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who hails from the area. The protesters are demanding the release of detainees and the cancellation of a tough counter-terrorism law and other policies they believe overwhelmingly target Sunnis. Many link their cause with the broader Arab Spring and are calling for the downfall of the government altogether.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has done little to crack down on the protests and has released hundreds of detainees in a concession to the protesters' demands. But he has also criticized some in their ranks for seeking to undermine the democratic process and exacerbate the country's sectarian divisions.
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