BAGHDAD: Iraqi troops shot dead five protesters on Friday as they opened fire at stone-hurling demonstrators angry at the troops for preventing them from joining an anti-government rally west of Baghdad, officials said.
According to police officials, the soldiers started shooting after a group of protesters on their way to a Sunni rally in Fallujah started throwing stones on an army checkpoint at the entrance to the city.
Along with the five killed, 23 protesters were also wounded in the shooting, said the officials. The demonstrators were angry at the troops for blocking their way and stopping them from reaching the rally in Fallujah, about 65 kilometers west of Baghdad.
The rally is part of weekly Friday protests that erupted last month, sparked by the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al Issawi. Drawn from Iraq's Sunni minority, the demonstrators have been protesting what they see as unfair treatment by the Shia-led government.
Medics in a Fallujah hospital confirmed Friday's casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
Police said that one army vehicle was set on fire by the protesters during the clashes in Fallujah.
At the central rally, meanwhile, Sunni cleric Mohammed al Dulaimi urged the protesters to show self-restraint and avoid further friction with the soldiers.
Al Dulaimi, who led the Friday prayers, accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki's government of adopting policies that might lead eventually to the division of the country.
“I tell the prime minister that he should stop neglecting our demands and stop violating our rights ... otherwise the volcano will erupt,'' al Dulaimi added.
Fallujah lies in the heart of Iraq's western Anbar province, which has so far been the centrepiece of Sunni protests. The rallies were largely free from violence until Friday, though at least two demonstrators were wounded in December, when bodyguards and security forces protecting a senior Sunni politician opened fire to disperse angry crowds.