BAGHDAD (AP) — The Sunni head of a committee established to investigate deadly clashes that erupted at a protest camp in Iraq last week said Wednesday that he believes excessive force was used by security forces as they tried to make arrests among anti-government demonstrators.
The April 23 clashes in the town of Hawija, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad, sparked a wave of violence across Iraq that has killed more than 230 people, posing the most serious threat to Iraq's stability since the last American troops left in December 2011.
Sectarian attacks and clashes have been on the upswing in Iraq, raising concerns of a return to the bloody fighting in the last decade that approached a state of civil war. Many from Iraq's Sunni minority say they are marginalized and discriminated against by the Shiite-led government.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, a Sunni, was named the head of a ministerial committee set up by Iraq's prime minister hours after the clashes broke out between government security forces and some of the protesters in Hawija.
"We have found that extra and extensive force was used, and it was not needed," he said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday.
Al-Mutlaq has in the past clashed with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose Shiite-led administration has been the target of more than four months of anti-government demonstrations. Al-Mutlaq continues to serve in the government, unlike several other senior Sunni officials who resigned in protest or were forced out of office.
The Defense Ministry said after the crackdown that 23 people, including three members of the security forces, were killed in the clashes. It said some of the dead included militants tied to al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath Party, and weapons were recovered from the scene.
Al-Mutlaq's office countered that investigators found evidence that 46 people not on the side of security forces, including minors, were killed. Several were shot in the chest or above, he said.
Al-Mutlaq said members of the military told investigators that Iraqi troops opened fire after one of their officers was killed. While he did not cast doubt on that account, he suggested that the government's response was excessive.
"In any military, someone has to be responsible," he said. "To lose one soldier, or one officer, that does not mean that you kill such a huge amount of people," he added later.
Al-Mutlaq stopped short of assigning blame for the killings, saying it would likely be several weeks before his committee makes its full findings public, if at all.
The clashes in Hawija erupted four days after a checkpoint run by the police and army near the town came under attack. Militants seized a number of weapons before retreating into a crowd of protesters, according to the Defense Ministry.
The Defense Ministry said its forces tried to warn protesters to disperse before moving on the site, and they came under heavy fire as they tried to make arrests.
Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, a Defense Ministry spokesman, denied that excessive force was used at the Hawija camp.
"We gave them three days in order to allow us to search for wanted suspects and weapons, but our request was turned down. When our security forces advanced, they were attacked," he said when asked for comment Wednesday evening.
Authorities reported detaining 75 people and seizing many machine guns, hand grenades, daggers and swords.
While the circumstances of what exactly happened at Hawija remain murky, international observers also question how the incident was handled.
"This was clearly a major fight in which many people died — not all of them armed," said a Western diplomat, who was not authorized to speak publicly and agreed to talk only on condition of anonymity.
"Bottom line, it looks like excessive force was used and a lot of unarmed people were killed. There were more people killed than there were arms," the diplomat added in an interview this week.
In the wake of the Hawija incident, gunmen have battled security forces in a number of towns, and attackers have detonated bombs in both Sunni and Shiite areas.
The violence continued Wednesday. A series of attacks claimed 15 lives.
A parked car bomb went off early in the morning in the Shiite-dominated Baghdad suburb of Husseiniya, killing four civilians, police said. Twelve people were wounded.
Around noon, another parked car bomb exploded near a group of anti-al-Qaida Sunni fighters near the former insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad.
The pro-government militiamen had gathered outside a military post to receive their salaries. The explosion killed three fighters and one civilian, wounding 15, police said.
In the northern city of Mosul, gunmen killed a candidate running in local elections, police said.
And in the evening, gunmen in five pickup trucks attacked Tarmiyah police station, sparking a half-hour gunbattle. Six policemen were killed, including the police station chief, and 10 other policemen were wounded, according to police. The gunmen withdrew after security reinforcements entered the town, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad.
Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The violence that escalated after the Hawija clashes sharply raised Iraq's death toll last month. It hit 402 in April, according to an AP count, up from the previous month's toll of 254.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin, Mohannad al-Saleh and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.