London, Asharq Al-Awsat—Clashes broke out earlier today, Tuesday, April 23, between Sunni protesters and Iraqi security forces. In a statement, Iraqi officials said that 23 people had died at a makeshift protest camp in the town square at Hawija, near Kirkuk, although other reports put the death toll at 26 or more.
The clashes come as part of an increase in violence and sectarian tension throughout the country. Last week’s provincial elections—the first to take place since US troops withdrew in 2011—were tainted by a wave of attacks.
This is the second time in a week that the small town of Hawija has been subject to violence. Similar events four days earlier, on Friday, resulted in two deaths. One of the dead in that attack was an Iraqi officer.
Since then, the town has been surrounded by security forces, which demanded that those responsible be handed over to the authorities.
Early on Tuesday, “joint forces entered the square in order to search for and arrest wanted men when the clashes with armed elements took place,” according to a statement from the Ministry of Defense.
A separate statement issued earlier in the day said that “the armed forces were … enforcing the law by using riot gear when they came under heavy fire.” This allegedly included being targeted by machine guns and sniper rifles.
The latest official statement confirmed that the military had killed 20 insurgents, arrested 75 others, and seized a large weapons cache. There is to be an investigation into “the reasons for this large amount of weapons” at a location that is “supposed to be a peaceful protest site.” It also confirmed that one officer and two soldiers had been killed in the clashes, with a further nine personnel suffering injuries, leaving the official number of dead at 23.
But local protesters say that they were unarmed when security forces stormed the town center, providing a conflicting narrative.
UN special envoy Martin Kobler made a statement denouncing the violence. “I encourage the Iraqi security forces to exercise the utmost self-restraint in maintaining law and order and the demonstrators to continue to preserve the peaceful character of the demonstrations,” he said.