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Iraqi police dismantle Sunni protest in west

Monday - 12/30/2013, 10:00pm  ET

FILE - In this file photo taken in Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, masked men parade during a protest against Iraq's Shiite-led government in Ramadi, 70 miles (115 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq. Iraqi police dismantled tents and cleared a sit-in camp site after Sunnis in a flashpoint western city ended their months-long protest following a deal with the country’s Shiite-led government, an official said Monday. (AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed, File)

SINAN SALAHEDDIN
Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) -- Iraqi police took down tents and cleared a Sunni sit-in in a flashpoint western city after protesters there agreed to end their months-long demonstration following talks with the Shiite-led government, an official said Monday.

Clashes nearby that reportedly left 10 dead, however, were a reminder of how the protest movement has often fueled armed campaigns by insurgent groups against the authorities.

In Baghdad, meanwhile, the Sunni speaker of parliament said that dozens of deputies had submitted their resignations protesting the dismantlement of the camp.

The protest camp in Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, was one of a half-dozen similar sit-ins across Sunni areas in Iraq. Since last December, the Sunnis have been protesting against what they perceive as discrimination at the hands of the country's Shiite-led government and against tough anti-terrorism measures they say target their sect.

On Monday, security forces dismantled the Ramadi camp, which was set up along a highway linking the city with Baghdad to the east, and Jordan to the west, said Defense Ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari. By early afternoon, the highway was reopened, he said.

The development came after three days of talks between the Ramadi Sunnis and Defense Ministry officials from Baghdad. There have also been other Sunni sit-ins, in cities such as Kirkuk, Mosul and Samarra, but rallying there has died down over the past months and it was not immediately clear if the camp sites there would be dismantled as well.

Al-Askari told Iraqi state TV that authorities convinced the Ramadi Sunnis late on Sunday to end their protest peacefully. The protesters were also warned that their gathering was a potential place of shelter for al-Qaida fighters but al-Askari said there was no violence during Monday's police action.

However, police officer and a medical official in Ramadi said at least seven gunmen and three policemen were killed in clashes in different places nearby.

They added that 25 gunmen and 14 soldiers were wounded. At least two Humvees and two armored vehicles were burned.

In nearby Fallujah city, four gunmen were wounded, another police officer and a medical official said.

Two explosives-laden cars and bombs were found in the camp, a police officer and an army intelligence official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

The organizers of the Ramadi protest were not immediately available for comment.

Ali al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The Associated Press that the protesters in Ramadi "still have the right to protest" but "not by erecting tents and blocking roads."

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. envoy to Iraq, called for restraint and dialogue. "Political disputes must be resolved through dialogue and through an inclusive political process," he said.

The Sunni protests have been the scene of frequent clashes with Iraqi police. In one episode, security forces in April carried out a deadly crackdown on a similar protest camp in the northern city of Hawija. The violence killed 44 civilians and one policeman, according to U.N. estimates.

Since the Sunni protests erupted, insurgents in Iraq -- mostly al-Qaida fighters but also other militants -- have stepped up attacks across the country, sending violence to levels not seen since 2008, when sectarian killings nearly tore Iraq apart in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion.

Sunni leader Osama al-Nujaifi meanwhile said in a conference in Baghdad that 44 legislators had submitted their resignations from parliament. They demanded the army pull out of cities, referring to Sunni communities.

Resignations and threats of resignations have happened before, but the move ups the political pressure on Maliki, who also faces criticism from Shiite and Kurdish groups who say he is trying to consolidate government power in his hands.

Monday's development comes two days after Iraqi troops detained a Sunni lawmaker, Ahmed al-Alwani, who has been prominent among the organizers of the protests. He is sought on terrorism charges for inciting violence against Shiites who came to power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ended Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime.

When arresting officers arrived on Saturday at al-Alwani's home to arrest him, his entourage resisted and his brother and five of his guards were killed in a shootout with the officers. Two troops were also killed.

Elsewhere in Anbar, a government offensive is underway this month, with security forces hunting down al-Qaida fighters in a bid to stem the violence. According to U.N. estimates, more than 8,000 people have been killed in Iraq since the start of the year.

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