At least 26 people were killed in northern Iraq as the security forces stormed a rally site near Kirkuk used by the Sunni Muslim protesters on Tuesday, flaring up tensions between the protesters and the government.

Violence erupted in the town of Hawijah, about 240 kilometers (160 miles) north of Baghdad -- a predominantly Sunni neighborhood -- when security forces barged into the camp following alleged gunfire from the protesters.

The camp has been home to Sunni demonstrators who have been rallying against Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki's Shiite-led government and alleging the marginalization of their sect since December.

Iraq's defense ministry said troops responded following a gunfire from gunmen in the makeshift camp.

"When the armed forces started ... to enforce the law using units of riot control forces, they were confronted with heavy fire," the defense ministry said in a statement.

However, the protesters claimed the raid was unprovoked and that they were unarmed when the security troops raided the camp and attempted to make arrests, which triggered a gun battle.

"When Special Forces raided the square, we were not prepared and we had no weapons, they crushed some of us in their vehicles," Ahmed Hawija, a student who had been taking part in the demonstrations told Reuters.

The exact number of casualties was not known as both the security officials and the demonstrators gave conflicting reports about number of victims. According to military sources quoted by Reuters, at least six troops and 20 demonstrators were killed in the violence.

The protest against the government began in December when Shiite-led government forces arrested bodyguards assigned to Sunni Finance Minister Rafia Al-Issawi as a part of an anti-terrorism operation. The Sunni sect sees the arrests and a tough anti-terrorist law -- which they claim unfairly targets their sect –- as part of a larger political conspiracy to sideline the Sunni community.

The security forces say that the protesters' camps are being used as a hideout by the country's Al-Qaeda wing, which is attempting to foment mistrust between the Sunni and Shia sects.

Currently, Prime Minister Maliki leads the fragile ruling coalition that consists of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. However, there has been significant infighting among the coalition partners that allege discrimination, which is being cited as a leading factor threatening Iraq's democracy.