The monthly death toll in Iraq dropped by nearly a third to 659 last month, the U.N. said Sunday, but a recent spike in the number of bullet-riddled bodies found on the street has raised fears the country is facing a return to all-out warfare between Sunni and Shiite factions.
Underscoring the dangers, a triple bombing struck the funeral of the son of an anti-al-Qaida Sunni tribal leader northeast of Baghdad on Sunday, one of several attacks across the country that killed 17 people, Iraqi officials said.
Widespread chaos nearly tore the country apart in the aftermath of the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. Violence ebbed in 2008 after a series of US-Iraqi military offensives, a Shiite militia cease-fire and a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq. Despite the relative calm, attacks 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.
More than 8,000 Iraqis have been killed so far this year, according to the U.N. figures, most as bloodshed accelerated sharply after a deadly April 23 crackdown by security forces on a northern Sunni protest camp that set off near-daily attacks, mostly by Sunni extremists and al-Qaida militants determined to undermine the country's Shiite-led government.
At least 565 civilians and 94 security personnel were killed in November, compared to 979 in October, according to the U.N. mission in Iraq, which stressed the figures were a minimum.
The U.N. also said 1,373 Iraqis were wounded in attacks across the country last month — a drop of more than 500 from October, when 1,902, Iraqis were wounded.
Baghdad and surrounding areas saw the highest number of casualties for the month, with 224 killed and 399 wounded. It was followed by the volatile Ninevah province in the north, with 107 killed and 224 wounded.
It was the second month in a row that the overall death toll declined, but U.N. envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov said he was "profoundly disturbed" by a recent uptick in "execution-style" killings. 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.
"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, urging the Iraqi government to take "immediate steps" to find the attackers and hold them responsible.
US and Iraqi officials have long expressed fear that persistent bombings and suicide attacks blamed on al-Qaida and other Sunni insurgents would provoke Shiite extremists to resume nightly killing sprees that saw dozens of bodies found in the streets or floating in the river at the height of the violence.
It wasn't clear who rounded up and killed those killed in recent weeks. Shiite militiamen could be seeking revenge for the ongoing Sunni insurgent attacks. Militants with al-Qaida's local branch target Sunnis and Shiites in attacks and once took control of a town west of Baghdad two years ago by dressing as police officers and driving around in real squad cars. It also could be personal vendettas.
Iraqi lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq, a member of the parliamentary security and defense committee, said the recent killings show that the "weak government forces" are incapable of providing sufficient security or confronting militias and other armed groups.
"We should expect more such killings and revenge killings in the near future because there are some groups and politicians who want to reignite the sectarian war," he added.
Mazin Sabeeh, a Sunni government employee from northern Baghdad, said he is now avoiding visiting Shiite neighborhoods because he fears being caught and killed by militiamen.
"Apparently, there are some people form the other sect who are still determined to take revenge upon Sunnis and they have not forgotten what had happened in 2006-2007. With the current security vacuum and deterioration, they think it is the time to settle old scores," he said.
Some Shiite leaders already have issued a call to arms, saying it is self-defense in the face of relentless attacks that have left thousands dead in Shiite areas this year.
In Sunday's violence, the deadliest attack was the triple bombing that killed 11 mourners and wounded 45 others 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, according to police and hospital officials.
Police said the father was a member of a Sunni protection force known as Sahwa, which had joined forces with US 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 Sunni insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, police said gunmen shot to death Sunni cleric Khalid al-Jumeili, an organizer of the western city's Sunni protest camp, in a drive-by shooting.
At night, a bomb exploded inside a cafe in Baghdad's mainly Shiite neighborhood of Husseiniyah, killing three people and wounding 10 others, said police.
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.