BAGHDAD (AP) - 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 also 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.
Friday's protest was part of a wave of rallies that first erupted in Anbar province last month after the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from the area. Anbar is a former al-Qaida stronghold that saw some of the fiercest fighting against U.S. forces during the war.
The protesters are demanding the release of detainees and the cancellation of a tough counterterrorism 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.
In a statement issued after Friday's shooting, al-Maliki urged government security forces to show restraint and avoid the use of force. He also called on protesters not to provoke the army.
At the same time, he suggested unruly protesters were to blame for the incident.
"Today, in a deliberate act, a group of misguided people attacked one of the army's checkpoints. They started their assault using rocks and then shooting followed, and this has caused causalities and a rise in tension that al-Qaida and terrorist groups are trying to take advantage of," al-Maliki said.
Sunni Arabs, who comprise some 15 percent of Iraq's 28 million population, were dominant under Saddam Hussein and formed the backbone of the insurgency that arose after majority Shiites rose to power following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Sectarian violence that once pushed the country to the brink of civil war has ebbed significantly and most American forces withdrew in December 2011.
Sunni cooperation, particularly from tribal leaders in Anbar, was key to the drop in violence. Increasing anger on view at the protests has raised fears of a rise in bloodshed.
Friday's outbreak of violence began less than a mile from a protest area in Fallujah, the birthplace of the insurgency as well as the U.S.-backed Sunni revolt against al-Qaida that helped quell the bloodshed, some 40 miles west of Baghdad, police officials said.
They said demonstrators grew angry after being held up at the army checkpoint, first shouting and then throwing rocks. The soldiers initially shot into the air in an effort to disperse the protesters, who eventually tried to storm the post, police said.