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FRIDAY, 25 APR 2014
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Deadly clashes as Iraq forces dismantle protest camp
Agence France Presse
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RAMADI, Iraq: Deadly clashes broke out in the Ramadi area on Monday and mosques called for "jihad" as security forces moved to dismantle Iraq's main anti-government protest camp, an AFP journalist said.

The violence, which follows a raid on a Sunni MP's home in Ramadi, west of Baghdad, in which he was arrested and his brother killed, threatens to escalate already-widespread anger among Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community.

An AFP journalist saw the body of one person and said at least 10 more people had been wounded in an area of Ramadi that adjoins the protest site, where demonstrators have gathered 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.

Iraqiya state TV had earlier said that "local police are removing the tents from the protest site in Anbar" province, after an agreement between security forces, religious leaders and tribal sheikhs.

It also quoted the police chief of Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the capital, as saying that security forces found two car bombs as well as other bombs and explosives at the site.

The sprawling camp, located on the highway near Ramadi, included a stage from which speakers could address the crowds, a large roofed structure with open sides to provide shade, and dozens of tents.

The violence in Ramadi comes after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said last week the camp had become a headquarters for Al-Qaeda, and called on legitimate demonstrators to leave.

"I say clearly and honestly that the sit-in site in Anbar has turned into a headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda," Maliki said.

He 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.

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 Iraq 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.

The last major security operation at a protest site, which took place near the northern town of Hawijah on April 23, sparked clashes in which dozens of people were killed.

Nationwide death tolls from violence have spiked, reaching a level not seen since 2008 when the country was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings.

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.

 
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