BAGHDAD Shi'ite militias rather than Sunni Islamist al Qaeda are behind a recent wave of assassinations of Iraqi government, police and military officials in Baghdad, security officials said.
Militants have used silenced guns and bombs stuck to their targets to kill more than 38 officials in the last five months, according to Baghdad security operations. Interior Ministry sources have reported at least 51 such killings to Reuters in the same period.
"This issue is the biggest concern for the security apparatus currently," said Major-General Hassan al-Baidhani, chief of staff for Baghdad's security operations command.
"The graph line of (other) terrorist operations has decreased a lot ... but assassinations using sticky bombs and silenced weapons have started to rise," he said.
Among those killed last week were the director general of the Iraqi State Cement Co. Four assassinations were carried out in Baghdad on Sunday and Monday in which three officers at the Interior and Defense Ministries were killed, an Interior Ministry source said.
Violence has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian carnage in 2006-07 but remains a constant in Iraqi life. Much of it is routinely blamed on al Qaeda.
While Iraqi and U.S. forces have made strides against a stubborn insurgency, militants have stepped up attacks on soldiers and police in a bid to destabilize the government as U.S. troops, in Iraq for more than eight years after toppling Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, prepare to withdraw by year-end.
A surge in violence from Shi'ite groups complicates the security picture at a time when the U.S. military is deciding how quickly it can safely withdraw its remaining units.
SUNNIS TARGETED, BAATHISTS FEARED
Both Shi'ite and Sunni Muslim groups are behind the killings, but the recent spree targeting senior police and army officers in Baghdad has been carried out by Shi'ite groups concerned about a return of Saddam's outlawed Baath party after U.S. troops leave, senior security officials told Reuters.
Many of Iraq's Shi'ite political party leaders believe Baathists, who dominated Iraq under Saddam, will try to return to power by leading a military coup, using senior Sunni officers in the ranks of the army and police, security officials said.
"The most dangerous threat facing Iraq in 2012 is the Baath Party because it seeks to regain power," said a senior Interior Ministry official named to his post by a Shi'ite Islamist party.
Baathists have the experience, money and leaders to stage a coup, he said.
The Interior Ministry said at least 11 senior officers working at the Interior and Defense Ministries have been killed in separate shootings in Baghdad in the last two months. Defense Ministry statistics showed eight senior officers were assassinated in the last week of April alone.
Brigadier-generals Moayed Khalil, Ihsan Ali, Riyadh Majeed Rasheed, Mohammed Hameed, Taha Ahmed and Brigadier Emad Hashim Ahmed were among the Defense Ministry officials killed in the last two months.
"Most of the officers who were killed in the Ministry of Defense were Sunnis," said a Shi'ite Defense Ministry officer who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Ministry officials said hit lists have been issued by Shi'ite militias and published on websites, and some officers have received phone calls telling them they will be killed.
"Officers are living in a fear. These groups have people everywhere, in the police, in the investigations departments and in the groups of cleaners in the streets," the Shi'ite officer said. "The dangerous thing is that the officers' addresses are being leaked by security officials."
HOW TO AVOID ASSASSINATION
Noting the increase in assassinations of "important figures who work with the state," the Interior Ministry issued measures to help officials avoid being killed.
A pamphlet advises government workers to forego daily habits and routines, rent houses close to work, avoid deserted roads and dangerous areas, do security checks on bodyguards and get self-defense training.
"The killer is a skilled hunter," said a senior Interior official who declined to be named.
The attackers follow their victims for days before shooting them with silenced handguns, which draw less attention, or attaching small bombs to their cars.
"The attackers are associated with powerful sides in the political process," a senior police official said. "We are facing difficulties stopping them. They have state badges and legal permits to carry weapons."
(Editing by Jim Loney and Peter Graff)