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Clashes erupt at Iraqi protest as sectarian tensions flare

By Salma Abdelaziz, Yousuf Basil and Mohammed Lazim, CNN
December 30, 2012 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Clashes break out after Iraq's deputy prime minister arrives to address protesters
  • Some demonstrators called for him to resign and threw stones at the stage, witnesses say
  • The violence comes after nearly a week of protests
  • Sunni demonstrators say the government is treating them like second-class citizens

Baghdad (CNN) -- At least five people were injured when bodyguards for a top Iraqi official opened fire on stone-throwing Sunni demonstrators Sunday, the country's interior ministry said.

The clashes broke out after Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq arrived to address crowds protesting in a plaza in the western Iraqi city of Ramadi.

Tens of thousands of demonstrators have been there for nearly a week, demanding that the Shiite-led government stop what they call second-class treatment of Iraq's Sunni residents.

Some demonstrators Sunday called for al-Multaq, who is Sunni, to submit his resignation to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government. Protesters chanted, "Leave! Leave!" and threw stones at him, witnesses told CNN.

The deputy prime minister's bodyguards opened fire in an attempt to disperse the crowd as protesters hurled stones at the stage, Anbar provincial council member Suhaib al-Rawi told CNN. A protester with a gunshot wound was among five people injured, al-Rawi said. Details about the other injuries were not immediately clear.

Sunnis largely boycotted Iraq's 2005 elections, leading to the emergence of a Shiite-led government. The move left the once-ruling minority disaffected, which contributed to years of bloody insurgency and sectarian warfare.

The arrest of a group of bodyguards for Iraq's Sunni finance minister fueled a surge in protests last week in Ramadi, about 110 km (70 miles) west of Baghdad, and in several other Iraqi cities.

On Friday, protesters carrying flags dating back to the Saddam Hussein regime took to the streets in the predominately Sunni Anbar province, blocking a vital highway that connects Iraq with Syria and Jordan.

The demonstrations were called by tribal leaders and Sunni scholars, protesting against what they decried as unjust practices of Maliki's government.

Protesters demanded the release of detainees they said were held without charges. They called the government corrupt and accused it of unfairly targeting Iraq's Sunni community.

"We don't want your food, your water and your medicine," one scholar told the crowd. "We want our rights, our dignity."

In the wake of the protests, al-Maliki has defended his government.

"Nobody in Iraq has privilege over others," he said Friday, calling for increased dialogue.

"When we want to express an opinion, we have to do it in a civilized, humane and patriotic manner," he said. "It is not expected to express your opinion by cutting off roads, steering strife and sectarianism, fighting, bragging about wars and dividing Iraq."

CNN's Mohammed Lazim reported from Baghdad, Salma Abdelaziz and Yousuf Basil wrote the story in Atlanta. Catherine Schoichet and Mohammed Tawfeeq contributed to this report.

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