BAGHDAD: 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 Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-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, prompting 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 regarding the killing of the soldiers. Iraqi officials have repeatedly claimed that insurgent groups, such as al-Qaida in Iraq and supporters of former Iraqi leader Saddam regime have infiltrated 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-hours 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 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.
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.
Gunmen also opened fire on a checkpoint manned by government-allied Sunni fighters, killing five of them, near the city of Tikrit, 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad.
The militiamen, known as Sahwa, are among those who joined forces with U.S. troops to fight al-Qaida during the Iraq war. Since then, the group has been a target for Sunni insurgents who consider its members to be traitors.
Hospital officials confirmed the casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.