Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman speaks to a crowd in February. "The Iraqi… (Ned Parker / Los Angeles…)
BAGHDAD — Four Iraqi soldiers were shot dead Saturday, the day after Sunni Arab tribes in the restive western province of Anbar announced that they had formed their own army to defend themselves against the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
The deadly attack came as Sunni gunmen around Iraq clashed with government forces in the aftermath of a government crackdown on Sunni demonstrators Tuesday in northern Iraq. More than 200 people died last week in fighting between Sunnis and Iraqi security forces.
The violence has transformed nearly four months of peaceful Sunni Muslim demonstrations against the government into a movement violently confronting Baghdad.
Sunni tribes declared their own army for Anbar at Friday protests. The move terrified many Iraqis, even some Sunni tribal sheiks, who feared it would inspire similar actions by the country's Shiite Muslim majority that could reignite civil warfare, last seen in 2008 after several years of intense bloodletting.
Tribal leaders said the soldiers, dressed in plainclothes, had run two Sunni checkpoints and were fired on at a third.
Sunni leaders in Ramadi defended their actions.
"They had the silencer pistols to shoot, that's why our people surrounded them," said Sheik Ali Hatem Suleiman of the Dulaim, the largest tribal confederation in Anbar. "The Iraqi government is trying to get any excuse to attack Anbar."
Suleiman said the men who shot the soldiers were being sought to be handed over to the authorities. "We don't need to see Iraq divided, or sectarian violence, but this is the government's responsibility."
Tribes in Anbar braced Saturday for reprisals by the government.
Meanwhile, police and gunmen battled near the oil refinery city of Baiji, with one fighter killed and 11 arrested. In the western Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, four soldiers were killed and seven wounded in a gun battle with insurgents, police said.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, in a speech Saturday, hinted that the problems in neighboring Syria were responsible for reigniting sectarianism in Iraq.
"Sectarianism is evil, and the wind of sectarianism does not need a license to cross from a country to another, because if it begins in a place, it will move to another place," Maliki said in remarks broadcast on television, Agence France-Presse reported.
Maliki said Thursday that the country was facing the danger of civil war, and the United Nations special representative to Iraq, Martin Kobler, on Friday described the country as being at a crossroads.