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.
"Several days ago, the authorities promised us that they would provide the people free access to Abu Hanifa, but once again the government officials failed to live to their promises," al-Taha said.
In the western province of Anbar, the heart of the protest movement that began in December, masked men arrived at the site of demonstrations in Fallujah, raising the flag used by predominantly Sunni rebels in neighboring Syria.
They also held aloft a homemade black banner flag very similar to that used by al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq, suggesting that supporters of the terror group are trying to make their presence felt in the largely peaceful Sunni protests.
The protests in Sunni areas were sparked by the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi in late December. Sunni protesters complain they suffer from discrimination by the Shiite-led government.
In the country’s north, gunmen ambushed a mini-bus that was carrying soldiers heading to their base, killing eight soldiers and wounding one, said police and hospital officials.
The soldiers were on their way to report to their unit located in the northern suburbs of the capital when gunmen sprayed their bus with bullets near the city of Beiji, 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Baghdad.
During the afternoon attack, the bus was overturned and the gunmen shot at the soldiers, said police.
Earlier in the day, gunmen in the city of Baqouba broke into the house of Khalil Mohammed, a local leader in the Sahwa anti-al-Qaida movement, and killed him along with three of his sons, said police and hospital officials.
Baqouba is 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad.
The pro-government Sunni militiamen, known as Sahwa group, joined forces with U.S. troops to fight al-Qaida during the Iraq war. Since then, the group has been a target for Sunni insurgents who consider its members to be traitors.