(AFP) Clashes on Tuesday in north Iraq between security forces and anti-government protesters allegedly infiltrated by militants left 27 people dead and about 70 injured, top army officers said.
The clashes broke out around 5:00 am (0200 GMT) when security forces entered an open area in Hawijah, west of Kirkuk, where demonstrations have been held since January, the high-ranking officers said.
One of the officers, a brigadier general from the division responsible for the area, said the operation was aimed at Sunni militants from a group known as the Naqshbandiya Army, and that security forces only opened fire after they were fired upon.
A second officer said that 34 Kalashnikov assault rifles and four PKM machineguns were recovered at the scene.
Two soldiers were killed and seven wounded in the operation, they said.
Protesters have taken to the streets in Sunni-majority areas for more than four months, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and decrying the alleged targeting of their minority community by the Shiite-led authorities.