- POSTED: 30 Dec 2013 19:47
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Deadly clashes broke out and mosques called for holy war as Iraqi forces on Monday demolished a year-old protest camp set up by Sunni Arabs on a major highway.
RAMADI: Deadly clashes broke out and mosques called for holy war as Iraqi forces on Monday demolished a year-old protest camp set up by Sunni Arabs on a major highway.
The violence, which came just days after a deadly raid on the home of a Sunni lawmaker in the adjacent city of Ramadi, threatens to escalate already-widespread anger among Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community.
Another operation at a Sunni protest camp outside the northern town of Hawijah on April 23 triggered clashes in which dozens of people died, sending tensions and death tolls soaring.
An AFP journalist saw the body of one person and reported that at least 10 more people were wounded in an area of Ramadi that adjoins the protest site, where demonstrators have camped out for more than a year.
Security forces were deployed near the site and helicopters could be seen firing into the area, the journalist said, adding that two security forces vehicles were burned and gunmen had seized a third.
As the fighting raged, some mosques in the city used loudspeakers to exhort people to "go to jihad", or holy war.
Mobile phone connections in the city were down.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali Mussawi, told AFP that military sources confirmed police and tribal militia had "completed the removal of the tents that were (at) the site, and opened the road that was closed."
This was done "without any losses, after Al-Qaeda and its members escaped from the camp to the city, and they are being pursued now," Mussawi said.
He was repeating an assertion made on December 22 by Maliki, who said that "the sit-in site in Anbar has turned into a headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda."
Maliki called on "those who are with them in this place who refuse sabotage and who have legal or illegal demands... to leave these camps, and leave this place, so that Al-Qaeda stays alone".
He added that protesters had a "very short period" in which to leave.
Security forces found two car bombs and other explosives in the protest camp on Monday, state television said.
The sprawling camp, located on the highway near Ramadi that leads to Jordan and Syria, included a stage from which speakers could address the crowds, a large roofed structure and dozens of tents.
Numbers of protesters there ranged from hundreds during the week to many thousands on some Fridays when the Muslim weekly main prayers are held.
Protests broke out in Sunni Arab-majority areas of Iraq late last year after the arrest of guards of then-finance minister Rafa al-Essawi, an influential Sunni Arab, on terrorism charges.
The arrests were seen by Sunnis as yet another example of the Shiite-led government targeting one of their leaders.
In December 2011, guards of vice president Tareq al-Hashemi, another prominent Sunni politician, were arrested and accused of terrorism. Hashemi fled abroad and has since been given multiple death sentences in absentia for charges including murder.
The demonstrations have tapped into long-standing grievances of Sunnis, who say they are both marginalised by the government and unfairly targeted with heavy-handed tactics by security forces.
In another incident that has escalated tensions, security forces on Saturday raided the Ramadi home of Sunni Arab MP Ahmed al-Alwani, who backs the anti-government protesters, arresting him and sparking clashes that killed his brother, five guards and a security forces member.
Sunni discontent has been a key factor in the escalating unrest in Iraq this year, boosting recruitment for militant groups and eroding cooperation with security forces.
But while the government has made some concessions aimed at placating Sunni Arabs, including freeing prisoners and raising the salaries of anti-Al-Qaeda fighters, underlying issues remain unaddressed.
Nationwide death tolls from violence spiked following the operation, reaching a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings.
The violence continued elsewhere in Iraq on Monday, with nine people, among them three security forces members, killed in attacks.
More than 6,750 people have been killed in violence since the beginning of the year, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.