Iraqi army troops backed by helicopters stormed a plaza in a northern town, killing at least 20 protesters and wounding 46 others, the latest outbreak of violence in the oil-producing nation, the regional police force said in a statement.
Three soldiers were killed and nine wounded by gunfire from protesters in the Sunni Muslim town of Hawija, according to the defense ministry website. The army arrested 75 people and confiscated 40 rifles, five machine guns and 16 hand grenades.
Armed tribesmen, who lost family members when the army stormed the square, attacked a number of army checkpoints in the governorate, Hamed al-Juburi, a spokesman for the protesters, said in a telephone interview from Hawija. The protesters have since left the square, he said.
Skynews Arabia reported that Education Minister Muhammed Tamim al-Juburi, a Sunni, resigned after the violence. There was no immediate confirmation on the resignation from a government spokesman and from members of his Iraqiya parliamentary coalition.
Members of Iraq’s Sunni community have been holding protests since December to demand that Shiite Muslim Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki share more power. Finance Minister Rafih al-Issawi, one of the most senior Sunnis in the Shiite-led government, stepped down March 1, heightening tensions almost a decade after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein from power.
The protesters included “infiltrators” from al-Qaeda, state-sponsored Iraqiya television said, citing a defense ministry statement. At least 50 people were killed during the attack, Al Jazeera reported today, citing a security official who wasn’t identified.
Ground troop Commander Ali Ghaidan urged Hawija protesters yesterday to turn over those involved in the killing of a soldier and the wounding two others during an attack on an army checkpoint in Hawija on April 19.
Violence has escalated since the U.S. withdrew its last combat troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, with 4,568 civilians killed in 2012 compared with 4,144 in the previous year, according to the Iraq Body Count website. Forty-eight Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi troops were killed last month inside Iraq, raising concern that the civil war in neighboring Syria may spill over and destabilize parts of the country.
Followers of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr have also criticized Maliki’s government, and authorities in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish north have been withholding oil from the central government-controlled export pipeline since December amid disputes over energy contracts and land.
Iraq holds the world’s fifth-biggest crude reserves, according to BP Plc statistics that include Canada’s oil sands.