Iraqi authorities deployed security forces around the main rallying point for Sunni protests in western Iraq overnight and warned on Saturday that the area had become a haven for terrorists.
The operation was likely to further heighten tensions between Iraq’s Sunni minority and the Shiite-dominated government. It comes a day after a demonstrator was killed when security forces opened fire at another Sunni-led protest in the north of the country.
Witnesses reported seeing a large number of security forces, including more than 20 Humvees, deployed before dawn Saturday around the protest area on a highway in Ramadi, the capital of the vast western territory of Anbar. They said the forces withdrew from the area later in the morning.
The head of police for the western Anbar region, Brig. Gen. Hadi Arzeij, announced the crackdown in a televised press conference.
“The protest site has become a safe haven for some terrorists, terrorist networks and killers,” he said. “As security forces, we do not allow a presence like this regardless of any pretext or excuse.”
For more than two months, a site along the highway in Ramadi has been the center of demonstrations by Sunni Arabs against the Shiite-led government.
The arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi sparked the protests in late December, though the demonstrations are fueled by deeper Sunni feelings of perceived second-class treatment by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government.
Sunni protesters accuse Baghdad of arbitrarily detaining members of their sect and say they are being targeted unfairly by a tough anti-terrorism law and policies designed to weed out members of Saddam Hussein's former regime.
Security forces made their move after carrying out a series of arrests in recent days against alleged militants linked to the protests, Arzeij said. Among those detained was a member of al-Qaeda in Iraq who told authorities about terrorist networks operating in Ramadi that were planning to carry out attacks, he said.
Authorities also arrested protesters who were carrying al-Qaeda flags at a demonstration in nearby Fallujah, Arzeij said.
The Defense Ministry said in a separate statement that it took actions overnight to block al-Qaeda infiltrators and prevent the flow of weapons and explosives to the main protest site in Ramadi.
Army Lt. Gen Mardhi al-Mahlawi, the commander of Anbar Operations Command, said authorities would not hesitate to deploy troops around the protest site again "if the protesters do not cooperate."
He said foreign journalists now would be blocked from entering the vast desert province without official permission.
Al-Maliki’s government has previously urged security forces to show restraint toward the protesters, but authorities have expressed concern that extremists could exploit protesters’ feelings of resentment. Al-Qaeda’s Iraq branch and other militant groups have voiced support for the protest movement.
On Friday, Iraq’s agriculture minister announced his resignation after police opened fire on Sunni demonstrators in the northern city of Mosul, killing one protester and wounding five others. Izzeddin al-Dolah’s resignation was the second high-profile Sunni departure from the government this month.
Iraqi security forces surround protest site