BAGHDAD — Security forces stormed a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on Tuesday, sparking deadly clashes in several towns and sharply intensifying rage at the Shiite-led government. The unrest and a spate of other attacks, mostly targeting Sunni mosques, killed at least 56 people.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks on three Sunni mosques, and it was unclear if there was any connection to the storming of the protest camp. Sunni extremists such as al-Qaida have in the past targeted moderate Sunnis. But if Shiite militias were behind the attacks, it would raise fears of a return to the open sectarian fighting of 2006 and 2007 when Iraq was on the brink of civil war.
The raid on the protest camp drew harsh condemnations from Sunni leaders and foreign diplomats. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced the formation of a special ministerial committee to investigate what happened.
The security crackdown began at dawn in the former insurgent stronghold of Hawija, about 150 miles north of Baghdad. Like many predominantly Sunni communities, the town has seen months of protests accusing the government of neglect and pursuing a sectarian agenda.
The raid occurred four days after a checkpoint jointly run by the police and army near the town came under attack. Militants seized a number of weapons before retreating into the crowd of protesters, according to the Defense Ministry. Authorities had been trying to negotiate with local and tribal officials to hand over those responsible.