Iraqi army pulls out from Falluja after deadly clashes with protesters

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The Iraqi army has withdrew from Falluja, a city in the Sunni province of Anbar, after deadly clashes with protesters that left five anti-Maliki demonstrators killed, Al Arabiya correspondent reported Friday.

After the army’s withdrawal, Anbar operation command imposed curfew on Falluja, Al Arabiya correspondent added.

An agreement has been reached between Anbar province and the office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces to withdraw the army from Falluja, a local website, Al-Sumaria News, reported. Instead, the federal police will substitute the army within 24 hours, the website added.

It was the most serious violence since Sunni protesters began taking to the streets in late December to challenge Prime Minister Nuri Maliki's Shiite-led government and rally against what they see as the marginalization of their minority sect.

The protest had been moving to an area in east Fallujah but was blocked off by soldiers, an army captain said. Protesters began throwing bottles of water at the troops who then opened fire, the officer said.

A doctor at the main hospital in Fallujah, 60 kilometers (35 miles) west of Baghdad, confirmed the toll.

It was not immediately clear whether the soldiers fired directly into the crowd, or into the air.

The protests, all of which have taken place in majority-Sunni areas of Iraq, have hardened opposition against Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and come amid a political crisis less than three months ahead of key provincial elections.

Demonstrators began by criticizing the alleged exploitation of anti-terror laws to detain Sunnis wrongfully, but have since moved on to calling for Maliki to quit.

They were sparked by the Dec. 20 arrest of at least nine of the guards of Finance Minister Rafa al-Essawi, a top Sunni politician.

The government has sought to curb the rallies by claiming to have released nearly 900 prisoners in recent weeks, with a senior minister publicly apologizing for holding detainees without charge.

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