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Iraqi Sunni officers increasingly targeted, as Shiite militias fear Baath party return

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In the wake of US troops leaving Iraq, a new wave of killings has swept the embattled country targeting mainly Sunni officers working with the state in a bid to stave off the Baath party’s return.

While terrorist operations in Iraq have declined in the last few years, they still threaten Iraqis. Assassinations have showed their ugly face and are alarmingly on the rise, according to Reuters.

“This issue is the biggest concern for the security apparatus at the moment,” 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.

During former President Saddam Hussain’s Baathist reign, Iraqi Shiites complained of discrimination and claimed that they were targeted by his regime, which, according to them, favored Sunnis.

The security officials told Reuters that Shiite militias rather than Al Qaeda were behind a recent wave of assassinations of Iraqi government, police and military officials in Baghdad.

At least 51 have been assassinated in the last five months, the Interior Ministry sources told Reuters. The militants are savvy; they used silenced guns and bombs stuck to their targets to kill more than 38 officials in the same period, according to Baghdad security operations.

Among those killed last week was the director general of the Iraqi State Cement Company. 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.

While violence has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian carnage in 2006-07 following the bombing of a highly revered Shiite shrine in Samara, violence still mars Iraqis and it is routinely blamed on Al Qaeda.

US troops leaving Iraq by the end of 2011 has raised fears among Shiites that the outlawed Baath party may return with full force in a staged coup, as the recent spree targeting senior police and army officers in Baghdad has been carried out by Shiite groups, senior security officials told Reuters.

Currently there are fewer than 50,000 US troops in Iraq, down from more than 170,000 following the invasion in 2003.

Iraq’s Shiite political party leaders believe Baathists are 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 Shiite Islamist party.

It is the Baathists who 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.

Brigadiers General 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 Shiite defense ministry officer who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Ministry officials said hit lists have been issued by Shiite militias and published on websites, and some officers have received phone calls telling them they will be killed.

“Officers are living in fear. These groups have people everywhere, in the police, in the investigations departments and in the groups of cleaners in the streets,” the Shiite officer said. “The dangerous thing is that the officers’ addresses are being leaked by security officials.”

Due to the increased number in assassinations of “important figures who work with the state,” the interior ministry issued measures to help officials avoid being killed.

The ministry issued a pamphlet advising 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.”

(Dina Al Shibeeb, an editor at Al Arabiya, can be reached at: dina.ibrahim@mbc.net)