Seven killed in Iraq shooting


Armed men killed seven Shia pilgrims in ambushes today, police and hospital sources said, in the latest attacks to highlight underlying sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq.

Political tensions in the country have been high since US troops withdrew in December, when Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's government moved against two top Sunni officials - seeking the arrest of vice president Tareq al-Hashemi and the removal of deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq.

The crisis sparked protests in Sunni strongholds and raised fears of a return to the sectarian slaughter that engulfed Iraq a few years ago.

Today, two cars blocked a bus carrying pilgrims from Baghdad to a key Shia shrine in the northern, mainly Sunni, city of Samarra. Some seven gunmen opened fire, killing five and wounding six of them in the attack at around 5am near Tarmiya, 25km north of the capital, a local police source said.

The bombing of the golden-domed Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006 was a catalyst in igniting two years of sectarian violence that drove Iraq to the brink of civil war.

A second incident occurred at 7.30am in the southern outskirts of Baghdad when gunmen killed two Shia pilgrims en route to the holy Shia city of Kerbala in Iraq's south.

Six others were wounded, police and hospital sources said.

While overall violence in Iraq has fallen since the peak of sectarian fighting in 2006-07, bombings and killings still occur daily. Most attacks are blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents who have refused to lay down arms after the withdrawal of US forces.

On Wednesday, militants targeting Shia families in Baquba killed five people in bombings that occurred after leaflets were distributed telling Shias to leave the neighbourhood or be killed.

Iraq's coalition government is a delicate mix of Shias, Sunnis and Kurds and was formed under a fragile power-sharing agreement after an inconclusive election in 2010.