BAGHDAD (AP) — An alarming number of Iraqis killed "execution-style" last month signaled an increase in targeted killings as the overall death toll in Iraq so far this year rose above 8,000, the U.N. said Sunday. The bodies, usually dumped on the street and mutilated, have heightened fears that the country is sliding back toward all-out warfare between Sunni and Shiite factions.
Underscoring the dangers, three bombs tore through the funeral procession of the son of an anti-al-Qaida Sunni tribal chief northeast of Baghdad, the deadliest in a wave of attacks that killed 17 people Sunday, Iraqi officials said.
Widespread chaos nearly tore the country apart following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. Extremists from both Islamic sects battled each other and American forces, killing tens of thousands.
A series of U.S.-Iraqi military offensives, a Shiite militia cease-fire and a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq helped tamp down the violence. Attacks, however, continued on a near-daily basis and political tensions remained high between Sunnis and the majority Shiites who consolidated their power after the American military withdrew in December 2011.
The bloodshed accelerated sharply after a deadly April 23 crackdown by security forces on a northern Sunni protest camp, capping months of relatively peaceful demonstrations against alleged abuse at the hands of the Shiite-led government. Some Shiite leaders already have issued a call to arms, saying it is self-defense in the face of relentless bombings and shootings that have left thousands dead in Shiite areas this year.
Mazin Sabeeh, a Sunni government employee from northern Baghdad, said he has started avoiding Shiite neighborhoods because he fears being captured and killed by militiamen.
"Apparently, some people from the other sect are still determined to take revenge upon Sunnis," he said. "With the current security vacuum and deterioration, they think it is the time to settle old scores."
Qassim Haider, a Shiite owner of a menswear shop in eastern Baghdad, said he also has stopped accepting invitations to visit friends in mainly Sunni neighborhoods.
"It seems that history is always repeating itself in Iraq," he said.
The death toll in Iraq dropped to at least 659 in November— including 565 civilians and 94 security forces, compared with 979 in October, according to the U.N. mission in Iraq. The U.N. also said 1,373 Iraqis were wounded in attacks last month, compared with 1,902 in October.
Baghdad and surrounding areas saw the highest number killed last month, at 224, followed by the volatile northern Ninevah province, with 107.
In all, at least 7,157 civilians and 952 Iraqi security forces have been killed since January, the U.N. said.
U.N. envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov singled out an increase in the number of bullet-riddled bodies found, including some that were beheaded, and urged the Iraqi government to move quickly to find the attackers and hold them responsible.
Last week, Iraqi police found 31 bodies of men, women and children who were shot in the head in three separate places around Baghdad, recalling the height of sectarian violence in 2006-2007 when extremists abducted and killed members of other religious groups, although the numbers remain significantly lower.
"I am profoundly disturbed by the recent surge in execution-style killings that have been carried out in a particularly horrendous and unspeakable manner," Mladenov said.
His spokeswoman Eliana Nabaa said the decline in the overall death toll was due to a shift in tactics, with insurgents increasingly turning to targeted killings and a reduction in the number of bombings.
"Bombings tend to kill larger numbers at any one time, whereas targeted killings usually kill the target and on occasion one or two others, hence the decline in numbers of casualties and rise in targeted killings," she said in an email.
The deadliest attack Sunday, for example, was the triple bombing that killed 11 mourners and wounded 45 at a funeral for a local Sunni tribal sheik's son who died a day earlier in Wajihiya, 80 kilometers (45 miles) northeast of the capital, police and hospital officials said.
Police said the father was a member of a Sunni protection force known as Sahwa, which had joined forces with U.S. troops at the height of the Iraq war to fight al-Qaida. Iraqi troops and Sahwa fighters have been a favorite target for Sunni insurgents, who consider them to be traitors. It was not clear how the son died.
A roadside bomb also hit a police patrol in Abu Ghraib, on the western outskirts of Baghdad, killing two officers and wounding three others, officials said.
In the former Sunnni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, police said gunmen killed Sunni cleric Khalid al-Jumeili, an organizer of the city's Sunni protest camp.
Medics at nearby hospitals confirmed the casualty figures for all attacks. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to media.
No group has claimed responsibility for the bodies that have been found. Shiite militiamen could be seeking revenge for the ongoing Sunni insurgent attacks. Militants with al-Qaida's local branch also target Sunnis and Shiites in attacks. It also could be personal vendettas.
Muhsin Abdul-Qadir, a Sunni government employee, accused security forces of turning a blind eye to the growing activities of Shiite militias.
"The country is headed for the worst because of the sectarian policies of the government," he said.
Members of both sects placed the primary blame on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government for failing to provide security and stability.
"Al-Qaida and other terrorist groups are getting stronger while our security forces are getting weaker," Shiite lawmaker Mushriq Naji said. "Al-Qaida is more easily able to pick the time, the place and the way to kill our people."
Gamel reported from Cairo.