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Violence erupts at Iraq rally; 5 protesters killed

BAGHDAD (AP) — Violence erupted on the outskirts of an anti-government protest in western Iraq on Friday when security forces killed five demonstrators — the first deaths at opposition rallies that have been raging for more than a month.

The deaths are expected to exacerbate tensions between the Sunni protesters and the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.

Hours after the shooting, police said gunmen attacked an army checkpoint, killing two soldiers. At least one army vehicle was set ablaze, and dozens of gunmen were seen roaming the streets before local authorities imposed a curfew in the city.

Friday's outbreak of violence began about a kilometer (0.6 miles) away from a protest area in Fallujah, a former al-Qaida stronghold about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, police officials said.

They said demonstrators grew angry after being held up at the army checkpoint. They shouted at the soldiers and then began throwing rocks. The soldiers initially shot bullets into the air in an effort to disperse the protesters, who eventually tried to storm the post, police said.

Another 23 protesters were wounded in the shooting, officials said.

Medics at a hospital in Fallujah confirmed Friday's casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Protests erupted last month after the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi. The demonstrators are protesting what they see as unfair treatment by the Shiite-led government, and are demanding authorities overturn policies they believe unfairly target their sect.

The rallies were largely free of violence until Friday, though at least two demonstrators were wounded last month when bodyguards and security forces protecting Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq opened fire to disperse angry crowds.

The clashes occurred as tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets, repeating a scene that has become common in Iraq's western Anbar province around midday Friday prayers. Smaller rallies have been held in other predominantly Sunni parts of the country, and thousands of protesters have staged an ongoing sit-in along a highway connecting Baghdad to Jordan and Syria.

Sunni cleric Mohammed al-Dulaimi, who led the prayers at the Fallujah protest, urged demonstrators to show self-restrain and avoid further friction with the soldiers.

In his speech, he also accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government of adopting policies that could divide the country.

"I tell the prime minister that he should stop neglecting our demands and stop violating our rights. ... Otherwise, the volcano will erupt," he said.

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Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed reporting.

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