BAGHDAD -- At least seven protesters and two soldiers were killed on Friday in clashes that started after Iraqi Army forces opened fire on demonstrators who had pelted them with rocks on the outskirts of Falluja, west of Baghdad. It was the first deadly confrontation in more than a month of antigovernment protests by mostly Sunni opponents of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
As a result, a curfew was imposed on Falluja on Friday evening.
A security official said one clash started when protesters began throwing rocks at government forces at a checkpoint near a main highway. The forces opened fire, and demonstrators responded by burning army vehicles and two cars, one belonging to a lawmaker from the mainly Sunni Iraqiya bloc and the other to a local politician from the province, Anbar. Seven civilians were killed and 44 people were wounded, according to medical sources.
Videos posted online by the Iraqi Spring Media Center show a man being treated in the main Falluja hospital and people trudging across open tracts of land with little cover from the intense rounds of gunfire.
Later, unidentified gunmen killed two soldiers and wounded one at an army checkpoint south of Falluja, in apparent retaliation, and gunmen kidnapped three soldiers, a police official said.
The Iraqi Defense Ministry later broadcast a statement saying it would investigate and punish those responsible for the gunfire, while compensating the people who were harmed.
"Today a group of people attacked one of the checkpoints of the army in Falluja," said Mr. Maliki in a statement, his first comments on the confrontation. "They started it with stones, and after that, gunfire, which was what led to increasing the tension."
He called on security forces to avoid force and said protesters had the right to demonstrate, but he also warned them to resist the incitement of what he called the "conspiracies" of regional intelligence agencies, remnants of Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the former government and groups with sectarian agendas.
"I call the wise people of Anbar to move toward turning off the fire of a sectarian strife that neither Anbar nor Iraq will benefit from," Mr. Maliki said.
Jaber al-Jaberi, a member of the Iraqiya bloc, asserted that it was the Iraqi army that had provoked the confrontation.
"We have decided to stop all negotiations with the Maliki government," he said in a telephone interview from Baghdad, adding that the Iraqiya Party was asking the Shiite bloc to present a new candidate for the prime minister post.
"The United States sacrificed to build an Iraqi army that is supposed to protect Iraq, not kill Iraqi people who ask for their rights," Mr. Jaberi said
In Washington, the clash provoked concerns among experts on Iraq, who worried that it might lead to an escalation of sectarian violence. After the episode, officials at the State Department and the National Security Council made a round of calls to Iraqi officials urging restraint and recommending that talks between Mr. Maliki and his critics on power-sharing and other thorny issues continue. "We are urging them to show maximum flexibility," an American official said.
Sectarian unrest and political tension have been worsening since December, when security forces loyal to Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, raided the home of the country's Sunni finance minister.
The raid revived accusations by Sunnis and others that Mr. Maliki and his political bloc were seeking to monopolize power before provincial elections in April. Mr. Maliki, who became prime minister during the American-led military occupation of Iraq, has denied the accusations and rejected demands to resign.
Protests have been seething since then, mostly intensifying on Fridays, when the week's largest communal prayer sessions are held, inspiring what are now known as "No Retreat Fridays." There were also demonstrations in Nineveh, Salahuddin, Diyala and Kirkuk Provinces calling for government reforms.
"The army must get out of Anbar now and leave it to the police forces, because the people are very angry about the direct gunfire from the army toward the peaceful protesters," said a local religious leader, Imam Ahmed Deri, who was at the demonstration in Falluja.
"We will continue protesting, and this will give us more strength to face any kind of force," he added. While warning about the potential for retaliation from protesters angered over the shooting, he added, "We will do our best to keep it peaceful."
One of the protesters, Muhammed Abdula, said: "This army is not wanted here anymore. We will not allow them in anymore; we are peaceful protesters. The army must protect us, not attack us. Is this the democracy that Maliki talks about? We give them words and they give us gunfire?"
In Nineveh, thousands of protesters called on the government to step down.
"Today we protest in Mosul; tomorrow we take the streets of Baghdad," they shouted.
But in Firdos Square in Baghdad, where United States forces orchestrated the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in 2003, hundreds gathered to support Mr. Maliki's government and to demand that efforts be made to prevent the return of Baathist leaders like Mr. Hussein to power.
Christine Hauser contributed reporting from New York, and Michael R. Gordon from Washington.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.