By Kamal Naama
RAMADI, Iraq (Reuters) - Bodyguards for Iraq's deputy prime minister wounded two people when they fired warning shots at Sunni protesters who pelted his convoy with bottles and stones on Sunday, witnesses said.
The incident took place in the city of Ramadi in the western province of Anbar, to where Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq had travelled to address people in an attempt to defuse sectarian tensions.
Thousands of Iraqi Sunnis have taken to the streets and blocked a main highway over the past week in protest against Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom they accuse of discriminating against them and being under the sway of non-Arab neighbor Iran.
"Leave! Leave!" the protesters shouted at Mutlaq, himself a Sunni, who has been a frequent critic of Maliki.
"It's only now Mutlaq comes to attend the protest and after seven days. He came to undermine the protest," Saeed al-Lafi, a spokesman for the protesters, told Reuters.
Mutlaq's guards opened fire to disperse the crowd after they threw objects at his convoy. Two people were wounded, the witness said.
In a statement following the incident, Mutlaq said some "rogue elements" at the protest had tried to kill him.
"Upon the deputy prime minister's arrival, the protesters greeted him with great warmth ... but some rogue elements which seek to divert the protesters from their legitimate demands carried out a cowardly assassination attempt against Doctor Mutlaq," it read.
Protesters are demanding an end to what they see as the marginalization of Iraq's Sunni minority, which dominated the country until the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein.
They want Maliki to abolish anti-terrorism laws they say are used to persecute them.
Echoing slogans used in popular revolts that brought down leaders in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia and Yemen, protesters have also called on Maliki to step down.
"Is this the way to deal with peaceful protesters? To shoot them? This is really outrageous," said protester Ghazwan al-Fahdawi, displaying empty bullet casings from shots he said had been fired by Mutlaq's guards.
In the northern city of Mosul, the provincial council called a three-day strike to press Baghdad to release women prisoners and stop targeting Sunni politicians.
Protests erupted last week in Anbar province after troops loyal to Maliki detained bodyguards of his finance minister, a Sunni.
That happened just hours after President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd seen as a steadying influence on Iraq's tumultuous politics, was flown abroad for medical care.
In a televised interview late on Sunday, Maliki said there were foreign agendas behind the protests and urged protesters to go home.
"You wanted to convey your message, it has been received, and that is enough because if this goes on it will complicate matters."
The Arab League described recent developments as "worrying" and called for dialogue in a statement released on Friday.
A year after U.S. troops left, sectarian friction, as well as tension over land and oil between Arabs and ethnic Kurds, threaten renewed unrest and are hampering efforts to repair the damage of years of violence and exploit Iraq's energy riches.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Sufyan al-Mashhadani in Mosul and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Robin Pomeroy)