x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Iraqi forces raid Sunni protest site in Hawija, 29 dead

Security forces backed by helicopters raided a Sunni protest camp before dawn yesterday, prompting clashes that killed at least 29 people.

BAGHDAD // Iraqi security forces backed by helicopters raided a Sunni protest camp before dawn yesterday, prompting clashes that killed at least 29 people.

The fighting broke out in the former insurgent stronghold of Hawija, about 240 kilometres north of Baghdad. Like many predominantly Sunni communities, the town has suffered months of rallies by protesters accusing the government of neglect and pursuing a sectarian agenda.

In an apparent response to the morning raid, militants tried to storm two army posts in the nearby town of Rashad, and six of them were killed, according to the defence ministry. Outrage also spread through other Sunni parts of the country, including the western Anbar province, where demonstrators took to the streets and clashed with police.

The prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, swiftly announced the formation of a special ministerial committee to investigate what happened in Hawija.

Sectarian tensions have been intensifying for months, pressured by Sunni protests that began in December and what officials fear is a strengthening of Al Qaeda and other Sunni-backed militants. That raises fears that the growing anger among Sunnis could lead to a new round of violence.

As news of the raid spread, calls went out through mosque loudspeakers in Fallujah, west of Baghdad, urging residents to protest in solidarity with fellow Sunnis in Hawija. About 1,000 protesters took to the streets in the western city, where anger at the government is strong. Some chanted "war, war" as security forces fanned out in the streets. In nearby Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, protesters threw stones at a military convoy. One army Humvee was overturned and set ablaze in the clashes.