BEIRUT — Security forces for the Shiite-led Iraqi government raided a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on Tuesday, igniting violence around the country that left at least 36 people dead.
The unrest led two Sunni officials to resign from the government and risked pushing the country's Sunni provinces into an open revolt against Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite. The situation looked to be the gravest moment for Iraq since the last U.S. combat troops left in December 2011.
The violence Tuesday started in the Sunni town of Hawija, where shooting erupted during the raid. Security forces had demanded that protesters hand over demonstrators suspected of shooting and killing an Iraqi soldier Friday. The security forces stormed the camp after protesters failed to deliver anyone.
Both sides blamed the other for the ensuing bloodshed. Government figures close to Maliki faulted militants among the protesters for opening fire when the Iraqi forces entered the protest camp, while Sunni politicians said government forces shot at demonstrators without being provoked.
Word of the unrest spread and ignited confrontations in three towns near Hawija, leaving 26 people dead and 80 wounded, according to security sources. In Ramadi in the western province of Anbar, an army jeep was torched and three soldiers were killed; in Suleiman Beg in Salahuddin province in the north, seven police were killed and 11 wounded when a mob surrounded a police station; and in Mosul, a mob also stormed a police office, according to security sources.
Members of different political factions agreed that if the government couldn't quickly bring calm, a Sunni uprising could sweep through the center and north of the country and could merge Iraq's conflict with the war across the border in Syria. The Syrian civil war has pitted Sunni fighters against President Bashar Assad's government forces and stoked sectarian tensions across the region.
"When things reach the point of fighting, with victims and the interference of the army in solving our internal conflicts, this opens the door to all [kinds of] possibilities," said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman. "The borders with Syria will be opened and people will come and go. Iran will interfere and so will Turkey."
The violence was a culmination of the ill will that has colored Iraq's political process since the finish of the nation's violent Sunni-Shiite conflict from 2005 to 2008. Despite an end to the open warfare between a Shiite-dominated government and Sunni armed groups in the years since, Iraq's ruling Shiite Islamists have failed to share power equitably with Iraq's Sunni minority, who enjoyed privilege under the late dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.
Frustration at their second-class status along with the arrest of ordinary Sunnis and prominent political figures set off Sunni demonstrations in Iraq at the end of December. Though there were halting efforts at reform by Maliki, and the wooing of a partner in his Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh Mutlaq, initiatives aimed at meeting Sunni demands for freeing thousands of detainees and ending discrimination against former Baath Party members had yet to be implemented.
In a February interview with The Times, Mutlaq worried that the government would not move fast enough to avert a confrontation between Iraq's alienated Sunni population and its deeply suspicious Shiite Islamist political class.
The glacial pace of reforms created an opening for Sunni hard-liners emboldened by the uprising in Syria who hope to carve out their own Sunni state or independent region in Iraq. One former Sunni insurgent said in late February that the goal of Islamists was to spark violent confrontation with the government and create their own self-ruled territory even if a few thousand people died, because that was better than living under the yoke of an oppressive Shiite government in Baghdad that would arrest and humiliate them.
As violence erupted Tuesday, some lawmakers vowed to keep Iraq from falling back into chaos.
"A minority of hard-liners are using these protesters as human shields and have infiltrated these demonstrations. They want to drag the country into a civil war between the Sunni and Shiites," said lawmaker Sami Askari, who is close to Maliki. "The majority [of Iraqis] reject this."
But even as Askari and others vowed to stave off disaster, the government appeared hobbled by mistrust. Kurds have boycotted the Cabinet along with most Sunnis. The Sunni education minister, Mohammed Tamim, resigned Tuesday after trying to broker a peaceful resolution between the protesters and security forces in the hours before the early-morning raid. The minister of technology, Abdul Kareem Samarrai, also resigned.
Mutlaq was named Tuesday to head the investigation into the shootings, and one of his senior aides, Dr. Mohanned Husam Aldin, said they believed an officer should be prosecuted for giving the order to open fire on demonstrators. If an officer was not charged, Mutlaq might resign, and with him the last of the Sunnis would exit the government.
The possibility of a Sunni revolt, similar to Syria's and perhaps involving fighters from next door, was raised by politicians and analysts.
"It could be like the Syria scenario," Aldin warned. "We will be facing random armed groups trying to attack everything."
Former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd, broached similar concerns in a message on Twitter.
"Iraq, Syria dynamics could merge into one with dire consequences. Iraq's political leaders must act decisively and now to spare country from abyss," he wrote.
Emma Sky, the former political advisor in Iraq to U.S. Army Gen. Ray Odierno, warned that a full-on Sunni revolt could spell the end of the modern boundaries between Iraq and Syria as fighters make common cause across borders against both Maliki and Assad.
"The killings in Hawija increase concerns that the Syrian conflict is spilling over into Iraq," Sky said.
Some tribal leaders called for vengeance against Maliki even as some warned that their areas risked being swamped by extremist groups.
In Anbar province, where the protest movement began in December, sheiks threatened violence.
"The tribes are ready to fight back and move toward Baghdad, and the war will be open to reach whoever is involved," said Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman, the crown prince of the Dulaim confederation, the largest tribe in the desert region adjacent to rebel-controlled territories in Syria. "The war will start but will not stop till the end of Maliki and his government."
In Kirkuk province, Sheik Anwar Obeidi, the leader of the largest tribe in the oil-rich region, urged the government to move to appease them, or risk the reality of Sunnis being whipped up in a frenzy by the hard-line militants among them.
"The tribes who lost their sons are ready to fight back the Iraqi forces if Maliki will not apologize to the people and tribes and prosecute whoever was involved in the killings," Obeidi said. "The street is boiling and no one knows what will happen."
Two special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.