Iraq Sunnis in western city end protest after deal

Associated Press

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi police dismantled tents and cleared a sit-in camp 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.

Since last December, Iraq's 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.

In the city of Ramadi, 115 kilometers (70 miles) west of Baghdad, security forces dismantled the protesters tents and the camp site along a main highway linking Baghdad with neighboring Jordan, said Defense Ministry spokesman, Mohammed al-Askari.

Al-Askari told Iraqi state TV that the Ramadi Sunnis agreed late on Sunday to end the protest peacefully, after authorities had warned them their gathering was a potential place of shelter for al-Qaida fighters. He said that there was no violence during Monday's police action.

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

The Sunni protests in Iraq have mostly focused around the western Anbar province, of which Ramadi is the provincial capital, and other Sunni areas to the north. It is unclear if the Ramadi deal covers other Sunni protests elsewhere in Iraq.

The 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.

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.

Saturday's arrest was also marked by violence as al-Alwani's entourage resisted the arresting officers, and his brother and five of his guards were killed after they opened fire on the officers. Two troops were also killed in the exchange.

The Ramadi came against a backdrop of a government offensive underway in Anbar, where security forces are chasing down al-Qaida fighters in a bid to stem the violence. According to U.N. estimates, more than 8,000 people have been killed since the start of the year.