Clashes erupted in northern Iraq when security forces raided a rally site used by Sunni demonstrators early on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people and wounding dozens in an escalation likely to enrage protesters who have been rallying against the government for months.
The fighting broke out in the town of Hawijah, about 240 kilometres north of Baghdad. It is one of several overwhelmingly Sunni communities that have been the site of anti-government protests. The rallies began in December and are presenting a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shia-led government.
There were conflicting reports on the casualties.
Iraq's Defence Ministry said 20 people whom it described as "militants who were using the demonstration as a safe haven" were killed, along with an army officer and two soldiers.
Another nine members of the military were wounded, the ministry said in a statement. It initially described those killed as members of al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.
Security forces attempted arrests
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 provincial health director for the area, Sidiq Omar Rasool, said earlier in the day that 14 people were killed and more than 50 people were wounded.
On Friday, 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 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 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.
Security forces detained 75 people and seized multiple weapons, including machine-guns, hand grenades, knives, daggers and swords, the ministry said.
A United Nations spokeswoman in Iraq, Eliana Nabaa, urged both sides to avoid further violence.
"Stop immediately the use of weapons," she said.
Sunnis allege discrimination
Protests against the Shia-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.
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, west of Baghdad.
Calls went out Tuesday through mosque loudspeakers in Fallujah, urging residents to protest along a major highway to show solidarity with the people of Hawijah.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, the Hawijah was considered one of the most dangerous areas for both American and Iraqi forces. They frequently faced deadly attacks by different groups of Sunni militants, particularly al-Qaeda's Iraq arm.
Like in other Sunni towns, Hawijah residents accuse the Shia-led governments in Baghdad of neglecting them and practising a sectarian agenda. They also oppose the Kurds' ambitions to annex nearby Kirkuk to their three-province autonomous region.
Also 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 5 a.m. when the bombs exploded simultaneously, two police officers said.
A medical official confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.