Gunmen killed 10 people in Iraq, including five soldiers near the main Sunni protest camp west of Baghdad, the latest in a wave of violence that has raised fears the country faces a new round of sectarian bloodshed.
The attack on the army intelligence soldiers in the former insurgent stronghold of Ramadi drew a quick response from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shia-led government has been the target of rising Sunni anger over perceived mistreatment.
The attackers stopped a vehicle carrying the soldiers near the protest camp, sparking a gunbattle that left the five soldiers dead and two of the attackers wounded, police officials said.
Al-Maliki vowed his government would not keep silent over the killing of the soldiers. Iraqi officials have repeatedly claimed that insurgent groups, such as al-Qaeda in Iraq and supporters of executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's regime, have infiltrated the Sunni demonstrations.
"I call upon the peaceful protesters to expel the criminals targeting military and police," al-Maliki said in a statement posted on his official website.
Authorities announced a curfew in the whole province of Anbar. They also gave the protest organizers in Ramadi, the provincial capital, a 24-hour deadline to hand over the gunmen responsible for killing the soldiers or face a "firm response," said Maj. Gen. Mardhi Mishhin al-Mahalawi, the army's Anbar operations chief.
Members of Iraq's Muslim Sunni minority have been rallying for the past four months in several Iraqi cities to protest what they describe as unfair treatment by al-Maliki's government.
Nationwide clashes kill 170
Tensions spiked earlier this week when fighting broke out in the northern town of Hawija during a security crackdown on a protest encampment. That provoked a series of clashes nationwide that left more than 170 people dead over the past five days.
In Cairo, Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood political group, from which Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi hails, condemned the Iraqi government's actions in the crackdown. The Sunni political and religious organization decried the Iraqi government's "violence in dealing with the peaceful demonstrators and protesters that resulted in the killing and wounding of many innocent people, which is rejected by Islam and humanity."
It added: "This is not the way people are governed or the way to achieve security and reform."
Morsi's government has itself come under criticized as scores of Egyptian protesters have been killed or wounded in police crackdowns and street clashes since the Islamist leader was elected after Hosni Mubarak's ouster in 2011.
For many Iraqi Shiites, the months of protests coupled with the latest unrest raise worrying parallels to the civil war engulfing neighbouring Syria.
There, President Bashar Assad's regime is fighting largely Sunni rebels who draw support from Turkey and Sunni Gulf states. Assad's Alawite sect is a branch of Shia Islam, and his regime is backed by Shia powerhouse Iran, which also has significantly bolstered ties with Iraq in the years since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Sectarianism an 'evil thing'
In a speech Saturday, al-Maliki warned that sectarianism is an "evil thing" that can swiftly spread from country to country in the Islamic world — an apparent reference to the divisions in Syria.
"If sectarianism erupts in one place, then it will erupt elsewhere too," he said. "And it is returning to Iraq because it has erupted in another area in the region."
That echoed previous concerns raised by the Iraqi premier. In a February interview with The Associated Press, al-Maliki predicted a victory for rebels in Syria would destabilize the wider Middle East, sparking sectarian wars in his own country and in Lebanon.
Elsewhere on Saturday, gunmen opened fire on a checkpoint manned by government-allied Sunni fighters, killing five of them, near the city of Tikrit, 130 kilometres north of Baghdad.
The militiamen, known as Sahwa, are among those who joined with U.S. troops to fight al-Qaeda during the Iraq war. Since then, the group has been a target for Sunni insurgents who consider its members to be traitors.