Violence intensifies in Fallujah: Gunmen kill two soldiers, kidnap three
Gunmen killed two soldiers and kidnapped three more west of Baghdad on Saturday in apparent revenge, as mourners buried seven anti-government protesters that troops shot dead a day earlier.
The tit-for-tat violence sharply raised tensions in the predominantly Sunni town of Fallujah after Friday's killings, the latest in demonstrations that began last month, amid growing calls for Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to quit.
Police Colonel Mahmud Khalaf said gunmen separately attacked checkpoints in the east, west and north of the town, leaving two soldiers dead, one wounded, and three kidnapped on Saturday.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the incidents, but militant Sunni factions, including Al-Qaeda's front group in Iraq, often attack security forces in a bid to push the country back towards the sectarian war that blighted it from 2005 to 2008.
While some Shiite clerics have given cross-sectarian support to the demonstrations, Maliki blamed demonstrators and insisted soldiers had been "attacked."
The attacks on soldiers came as funeral-goers buried the protesters shot dead a day earlier.
Friday's rally had been moving from central to eastern Fallujah, 60 kilometres (35 miles) from Baghdad, but was blocked by soldiers, police Captain Nasser Awad said.
Protesters began throwing bottles of water at the troops, who opened fire.
Seven demonstrators were killed, all of them from gunshot wounds, said Assem al-Hamdani, a doctor at Fallujah hospital. Hamdani said 60 others were wounded, most by gunfire.
The defence ministry has promised an investigation into the killings, and security responsibilities in the town have been transferred to the police in an attempt to defuse tensions.
On Saturday, thousands attended the funeral of the seven people killed.
A demonstration followed the burials during which protesters shouted: "Listen Maliki, we are free people" and "Take your lesson from Bashar," a reference to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country is in the grip of a bloody 22-month uprising.
"I will not be satisfied with compensation provided by the defence ministry," said Ali Khalaf al-Ani, whose son Omar was killed on Friday, referring to an offer for financial compensation by Baghdad.
"I want my son alive -- that is my demand!"
Maliki called for restraint by security forces in a statement issued by his office, but also said soldiers had been attacked in the first place.
"This is what Al-Qaeda and terrorist groups are seeking to exploit," he said of the apparent sectarian tensions.
The premier also blamed "conspiracies" propagated by the intelligence agencies of neighbouring countries, supporters of now-executed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda.
In addition to Fallujah, large demonstrations also took place on Friday in several other Sunni cities in northern and western Iraq, as well as in Sunni neighbourhoods of Baghdad.
The protests have hardened opposition against Maliki and come amid a political crisis ahead of provincial elections due in April.