* Seven people from same family killed
* Attacks underline sectarian, ethnic tensions
* Thousands of Sunnis have protested against Shi'ite PM
By Kareem Raheem
BAGHDAD, Dec 31 At least 23 people were killed
and 87 wounded in attacks across Iraq on Monday, police said,
underlining sectarian and ethnic divisions that threaten to
further destabilise the country a year after U.S. troops left.
Tensions between Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni factions in
Iraq's power-sharing government have been on the rise this year.
Militants strike almost daily and have staged at least one big
attack a month.
The latest violence followed more than a week of protests
against Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki by thousands of
people from the minority Sunni community.
No group claimed responsibility for any of Monday's attacks,
which targeted government officials, police patrols and members
of both the Sunni and Shi'ite communities.
Seven people from the same Sunni family were killed by a
bomb planted near their home in the town of Mussayab, south of
In the Shi'ite majority city of Hilla, also in the south, a
parked car bomb went off near the convoy of the governor of
Babil province, missing him but killing two other people, police
"We heard the sound of a big explosion and the windows of
our office shattered. We immediately lay on the ground," said
28-year-old Mohammed Ahmed, who works at a hospital near the
site of the explosion.
"After a few minutes I stood up and went to the windows to
see what happened. I saw flames and people lying on the ground."
In the capital Baghdad, five people were killed by a parked
car bomb targeting pilgrims before a Shi'ite religious rite this
week, police and hospital sources said.
Although violence is far lower than during the sectarian
slaughter of 2006-2007, about 2,000 people have been killed in
Iraq this year following the withdrawal last December of U.S.
troops, who led an invasion in 2003 to overthrow Sunni dictator
Violence also hit Iraq's disputed territories, over which
both the central government and the autonomous Kurdish region
Three militants and one Kurdish guard were killed in the
oil-producing, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, where militants
driving a car packed with explosives tried to break into a
Kurdish security office.
Earlier on Monday, two policemen were killed in Kirkuk when
a bomb they were trying to detonate exploded prematurely. An
army official and his bodyguard were also killed in a drive-by
shooting in the south of the city.
Kirkuk lies at the heart of a feud between Baghdad and
Kurdistan over land and oil rights, which escalated last month
when both sides deployed their respective armies to the swathe
of territory along their contested internal boundary.
Efforts to ease the standoff stalled when President Jalal
Talabani, a Kurd seen as a steadying influence, suffered a
stroke and was flown abroad for medical care in December.
Maliki then detained the bodyguards of his Sunni finance
minister, which ignited anti-government protests in the western
province of Anbar, a Sunni stronghold on the border with Syria.
A lecturer in law at Baghdad University said the protests
could help create the conditions for militant Islamist groups
like al Qaeda to thrive.
"Raising tension in Anbar and other provinces with mainly
Sunni populations is definitely playing into the hands of al
Qaeda and other insurgent groups," Ahmed Younis said.
More than 1,000 people protested in the city of Samarra on
Monday and rallies continued in Ramadi, centre of the protests,
and in Mosul, where about 500 people took to the streets.
In the city of Falluja, where protesters have also staged
large rallies and blocked a major highway over the past week,
gunmen attacked an army checkpoint, killing one soldier.
Protesters are demanding an end to what they see as the
marginalisation of Sunnis, who dominated the country until the
U.S.-led invasion. They want Maliki to abolish anti-terrorism
laws they say are used to persecute them.
On Sunday, Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, himself a
Sunni, was forced to flee a protest in Ramadi when demonstrators
pelted him with stones and bottles.
The civil war in neighbouring Syria, where majority Sunnis
are fighting to topple a ruler backed by Shi'ite Iran, is also
whipping up sectarian sentiment in Iraq.
"The toppling of President Bashar al-Assad and empowerment
of Sunnis (in Syria) will definitely encourage al Qaeda to
regain ground," Younis said.