BAGHDAD — Clashes erupted in northern Iraq when security forces raided a rally site used by Sunni demonstrators early on Tuesday, killing at least 23 people and wounding dozens in an escalation likely to enrage protesters who have been rallying against the government for months.
The fighting broke out in the town of Hawijah, about 240 kilometers (160 miles) north of Baghdad. It is one of several overwhelmingly Sunni communities that have been the site of anti-government protests. The rallies began in December and are presenting a stubborn challenge to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government.
There were conflicting reports on the casualties.
Iraq's Defense Ministry said 20 people whom it described as "militants who were using the demonstration as a safe haven" were killed, along with an army officer and two soldiers. Another nine members of the military were wounded, the ministry said in a statement. It initially described those killed as members of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party.
Sheikh Abdullah Sami al-Asi, a Sunni provincial official from Hawija, said the fighting began early in the morning when security forces entered the protest area and tried to make arrests. He said scores of people have been wounded or killed.
The provincial health director for the area, Sidiq Omar Rasool, said earlier in the day that 14 people were killed and more than 50 people were wounded.
On Friday, a checkpoint jointly run by the police and army near Hawija came under attack, and militants seized a number of weapons before retreating into the crowd of protesters, according to the Defense Ministry.
That led to a standoff, with security forces at times trying to negotiate with local and tribal officials the handover of those involved in the raid.
The Defense Ministry said it warned demonstrators to leave the protest area before moving in early Tuesday, and that large numbers of protesters left the site. As Iraqi forces tried to make arrests, they came under heavy fire from several types of weapons, and were targeted by snipers, according to the Defense Mininstry account.