BAGHDAD — Protesters clashed Friday with Iraqi police trying to prevent them from reaching the most venerated Sunni mosque in Baghdad, as members of their sect once again massed for anti-government rallies in several Iraqi cities.
Iraqi security forces had prevented worshippers from holding Friday prayers at the Abu Hanifa mosque last week as well, a development that reflects heightened sectarian tensions nearly a decade after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The security forces worried that Friday prayers at this mosque might turn into a massive anti-government demonstration.
Police officials said anti-riot police used batons and water hoses in order to prevent worshippers from crossing a bridge leading to the mosque, which is located in the primarily Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah.
The officials said five worshippers sustained bruises and minor injuries in the skirmishes at the bridge, about 2 kilometers (1 mile) from Abu Hanifa. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Abdul-Rahman al-Azzawi was among of a group of people who tried to cross the 14th of Ramadan bridge when they were met by security forces.
"We were showered with water and the policemen started to beat us. I do not know the reason behind this savage attack. We were only going to a mosque, not to al-Maliki's office in the Green Zone," he said, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office in the heavily secured quarter in the center of Baghdad nowhere close to the mosque.
The clashes did not reach the Abu Hanifa mosque itself. The area around the holy site was calm and hundreds of people, including Sunni parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, attended the Friday prayers there.
During the Friday sermon in the mosque, Sunni cleric Ahmed Haasan al-Taha criticized the restriction of movement imposed on worshippers.