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4 killed as tension spikes over Iraq protest camp closure

01 January, 2014

RAMADI: Four people died in fresh clashes Tuesday between Iraq's security forces and gunmen in Ramadi, as tension spiked following the forced closure of a nearby Sunni Arab anti-government protest site.

Monday's removal of the sprawling protest camp on the edge of the city west of Baghdad was a victory of sorts for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has long wanted it gone.

But it will likely inflame already-widespread discontent among Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community and compound rampant violence.

The fighting on Tuesday killed three gunmen and an Iraqi army sniper, while three militants were wounded, police and a doctor said.

Security forces on Monday killed 10 gunmen in the Ramadi area during clashes that broke out as the protest camp was taken down, while the violence also spread to the nearby city of Fallujah. There was also political fallout, with 44 MPs, most of them Sunnis, announcing that they had submitted their resignations. They called for "the withdrawal of the army... and the release of MP Ahmed al-Alwani," a Sunni who was arrested during a deadly raid on Saturday.

The raid on Alwani's house, which sparked clashes that killed his brother, five guards, and a security forces member, has also escalated tensions.

While fighting broke out in the Ramadi area as the camp was closed, it was ultimately shut down without the level of deadly violence that accompanied the last major security forces operation at a protest site.

On April 23, security forces moved on a protest camp outside the northern town of Hawijah, triggering clashes that killed dozens of people, sparking a wave of revenge attacks and sending death tolls soaring.

Maliki's spokesman, Ali Mussawi, said Monday that tents at the protest site had been removed and the highway towards neighbouring Jordan and Syria reopened.

This was done "without any losses, after Al-Qaeda and its members escaped from the camp to the city, and they are being pursued now," Mussawi told AFP. He was echoing a charge made on December 22 by Maliki who said "the sit-in site in Anbar (province) has turned into a headquarters for the leadership of Al-Qaeda".

The camp on the highway outside Ramadi, where the number of protesters had ranged from hundreds to thousands, included a stage from which speakers could address crowds, a large roofed structure and dozens of tents.

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.

The demonstrations have tapped into longstanding grievances of Sunni Arabs, who say they are both marginalised by the government and unfairly targeted by security forces.

Violence in Iraq has reached a level not seen since 2008, when the country was just emerging from a period of brutal sectarian killings. More than 6,800 people have been killed in Iraq violence since the beginning of the year, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.

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