BAGHDAD -- At least seven protesters and two soldiers were killed Friday in clashes that started after Iraqi army forces opened fire on demonstrators who had pelted them with rocks on the outskirts of Fallujah, west of Baghdad.
It was the first deadly confrontation in more than a month of anti-government protests by mostly Sunni opponents of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. As a result, a curfew was imposed Friday evening on Fallujah.
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, the other to a local politician from Anbar province. Seven civilians were killed, and 44 people were wounded, according to medical sources.
Videos posted online by the Iraqi Spring Media Centre show a man being treated in the main Fallujah hospital and people trudging across open tracts of land with little cover from the intense rounds of gunfire.
Later, unidentified gunmen shot dead two soldiers and wounded one at an army checkpoint south of Fallujah, 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 Fallujah," Mr. Maliki said in his first comments about 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 incitement of what he called the "conspiracies" of regional intelligence agencies, remnants of al-Qaida 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," he said.
Jaber al-Jaberi, an Iraqiya bloc member, asserted that the Iraqi army had provoked the confrontation. "We have decided to stop all negotiations with the Maliki government," he said in a phone 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 concern among Iraq experts, worried that it might lead to an escalation of sectarian violence. After the episode, State Department and National Security Council officials called Iraqi officials, urging restraint and recommending that talks continue between Mr. Maliki and his critics about power-sharing and other thorny issues.
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 U.S.-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.