Iraqi troops kill 5 protesters heading to anti-government rally in western city, officials say

Iraqi troops killed five protesters on Friday when they opened fire at demonstrators angry at the troops for preventing them from attending an anti-government rally west of Baghdad, officials said.

Police officials said the soldiers started shooting after a group of protesters, who were on their way to a Sunni rally in Fallujah, started hurling stones at an army checkpoint at the entrance to the city. Twenty-three protesters also were wounded in the shooting, the officials said.

The rally in Fallujah, about 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, is part of weekly Friday protests that erupted last month after the arrest of bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia al-Issawi. The demonstrators, from Iraq's Sunni minority, have been protesting what they see as unfair treatment by the government led by minority Shites.

Medics at a hospital in Fallujah confirmed Friday's casualties. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Police said protesters set one army vehicle on fire, but Sunni cleric Mohammed al-Dulaimi urged the protesters to show self-restrain and avoid further friction with the soldiers.

Al-Dulaimi, who led the Friday prayers, accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Shiite-led government of adopting policies that could divide the country.

"I tell the prime minister that he should stop neglecting our demands and stop violating our rights. ... Otherwise, the volcano will erupt," he said.

Also in Fallujah, police said gunmen attacked an army checkpoint, killing two soldiers and prompting local authorities to impose a curfew in the city.

Fallujah lies in the heart of Iraq's western Anbar province, which has so far been the focus of the Sunni protests.

The rallies were largely free from violence until Friday, though at least two demonstrators were wounded last month when bodyguards and security forces protecting Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq opened fire to disperse angry crowds