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2 Iraqi Sunni protesters wounded by gunfire

BAGHDAD – Gunshots wounded at least two people Sunday at demonstrations in western Iraq when bodyguards and security forces protecting a senior Sunni politician opened fire to disperse protesters, a local official said, marking the first casualties in more than a week of rallies.

Some of the demonstrators were demanding that the politician, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, quit the Shiite-dominated government. Video of the chaotic scene showed hundreds of angry protesters chasing the official's entourage, pelting them with rocks and bottles as repeated automatic gunfire rang out.

Al-Mutlaq's office described the incident as an assassination attempt by "rogue elements" within the crowd of protesters. In a statement, it said an unspecified number of his bodyguards were also injured in the melee, and some of his convoy's vehicles were damaged.

Iraqi Sunnis angry over their perceived second-class treatment by the government have been protesting for more than a week in the vast western Anbar province. Up to now there has been no violence.

The demonstrations reflect increasing sectarian tensions in Iraq, which is struggling to maintain stability nearly a decade after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, and a year after the last U.S. troops withdrew.

The violence erupted near the city of Ramadi during a visit by al-Mutlaq, according to Anbar provincial council member Talib Hamadi al-Dulaimi.

It was unclear who fired the shots that caused the injuries, and if those hurt were targeted intentionally. It is often difficult to assign blame for gunfire injuries in Iraq, where weapons ownership is common and security forces often shoot into the air to break up scuffles.

Al-Mutlaq is one of the government's most senior Sunni politicians and has been a frequent critic of the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He last year branded al-Maliki a dictator in a TV interview. Then he reconciled with the prime minister and remained in the power-sharing administration.

Although his visit was not announced in advance, he would have expected to find a sympathetic crowd in Anbar.

Members of al-Mutlaq's security detail and state security forces fired shots in the air after demonstrators insisted that al-Mutlaq show support for their protest by resigning from the government, al-Dulaimi said.

In local TV footage of the incident, protesters threw rocks and bottles at the entourage as it left the area, and automatic gunfire could be heard. One of the protesters shouted "Kick him out!" Another yelled, "They took the coward away in a taxi."

Al-Mutlaq's statement after the scuffle stressed his continued support for the protesters, and he called on state security forces to keep them safe.

Anbar provincial councilman Sheik Efan Saadoun said protesters in Anbar are growing dissatisfied with elected politicians, both at the provincial level and in Baghdad.

"They consider them to be conspirators because they have not seen anything from them in terms of improved public services and living standards," he said. "They are fed up with us and the whole the political process, but they don't know how difficult it is for us to get anything for them from a government that doesn't work properly."

On Friday, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets near Ramadi and other Sunni-dominated cities in the largest rallies in a week of demonstrations. The protests followed the arrest earlier this month of 10 bodyguards assigned to the Sunni finance minister, Rafia al-Issawi.

Although the arrests triggered the demonstrations, the protesters' demands tap into deeper Sunni grievances of perceived discrimination by the Shiite-led government.

Anbar province was once the heart of the deadly Sunni insurgency that emerged after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Al-Qaida is believed to be rebuilding in pockets of Anbar, and militants linked to it are thought to be helping Sunni rebels in Syria.

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Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Sinan Salaheddin contributed reporting.

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