BAGHDAD -- Iraqi troops opened fire on stone-throwing Sunni demonstrators in the country's restive west on Friday, leading to the deaths of at least five protesters -- the first fatalities in more than a month of anti-government rallies. Two soldiers were also killed, apparently in retaliation.
The violence is likely to exacerbate tensions between the Shia-led government and minority Sunnis angry over perceived second-class treatment and what they see as unfair policies targeting their sect.
Hours after the shooting, police said gunmen attacked an army checkpoint, killing the soldiers, in apparent payback for the earlier bloodshed. At least one army vehicle was set ablaze, and dozens of civilian gunmen were seen roaming the streets before local authorities imposed a curfew in the city.
Friday's's protest was part of a wave of rallies that first erupted in Anbar province last month after the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi, who comes from the area. Anbar is a former al-Qaida stronghold that saw some of the fiercest fighting against U.S. forces during the war.
The protesters are demanding the release of detainees and the cancellation of a tough counterterrorism law and other policies they believe overwhelmingly target Sunnis. Many link their cause with the broader Arab Spring and are calling for the downfall of the government altogether.
Sunni Arabs, who comprise about 15 percent of Iraq's 28 million population, were dominant under Saddam Hussein and formed the backbone of the insurgency that arose after majority Shiites rose to power following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Sectarian violence that once pushed the country to the brink of civil war has ebbed significantly and most American forces withdrew in December 2011.
Friday's's outbreak of violence began less than a mile from a protest area in Fallujah, the birthplace of the insurgency as well as the U.S.-backed Sunni revolt against al-Qaida that helped quell the bloodshed, about 40 miles west of Baghdad, police officials said.
At least 23 protesters were wounded in the shooting, in addition to those killed, officials said. The wave of rallies in Iraq has been largely free of violence until Friday, though at least two demonstrators were wounded in Anbar last month.