BAGHDAD - Gunmen in Iraqi army uniforms have shot dead an aging Sunni tribal leader and three of his sons in their beds, relatives said, in the latest attack to highlight Iraq's deep sectarian rifts ahead of a December poll.
A Defence Ministry official denied Iraqi troops carried out the pre-dawn slayings in the Hurriya district of Baghdad and said the killers instead must have been terrorists in disguise.
"Iraqi army uniforms litter the streets and any terrorist can kill and tarnish our image, killing two birds with one stone," the official said.
The Hurriya attack follows the discovery last week of more than 170 malnourished and beaten prisoners, many of them Sunni Arabs, locked in a bunker belonging to the Shi'ite-dominated Interior Ministry. Together, the incidents have ratcheted up fears Iraq is heading for civil war.
An Interior Ministry official said 40 men wearing army uniforms had come to the victims' house in the night. Relatives said Kathim Sirheed Ali, the 70-year-old head of the Batta tribe, and his three sons were shot as they were sleeping.
One victim was holding his daughter. "The gunmen told the girl to move then shot the father," said a relative.
Television footage showed the men lying dead in their bedding with bullet casings littering the floor. Wailing women in black veils stood by the bodies.
Sunni Muslim leaders accuse the Interior Ministry of sanctioning death squads run by Shi'ite Muslim militias which attack Sunnis. The government denies the claims.
Thair Kathim Sirheed said soldiers had killed his father and three brothers, two of whom had worked as policemen.
"I am going to get rid of my police badge. From now on I will be a terrorist," said Sirheed.
With nerves already raw from a long and bloody insurgency, the attack highlighted the depth of sectarian divisions as Iraq prepares for parliamentary elections on December 15.
Iraq's Shi-ite and Kurdish-led government and its US backers say they are determined to stage a secure and fair election but an upsurge in violence suggests Sunni and foreign insurgents are equally determined to disrupt the poll.
CAMPAIGN OF VIOLENCE
Thousands of Iraqis have died in the insurgency, with more than 160 killed in a bloody wave of suicide attacks on Shi'ite targets which began late last week.
US and Iraqi forces in turn have killed more than 700 suspected insurgents in less than two months during operations in western Iraq which the US military described on Wednesday as "very successful".
Western Iraq and the Euphrates valley leading from the border with Syria have been the scene of operations against insurgents and foreign fighters which the military says have been aimed at securing the region for the December vote.
The latest and largest of those operations in the mainly Sunni desert province of Anbar, dubbed "Steel Curtain", ended on Tuesday.
Iraqi doctors and residents say civilians, including women and children, have been among those killed but the US military says it uses precision-guided weapons and only attacks militants hiding out in safe houses.
Major General Rick Lynch, a spokesman for US forces in Iraq, said 1,500 suspects had been detained, including an undisclosed number of foreign fighters, and more than 200 weapons caches discovered in operations since September 28.
In the same period 170 US troops have been killed, including 80 in Anbar province alone, Pentagon figures show.
The US military says Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has built a base for his operations in Anbar, smuggling foreign fighters and weapons in from Syria.
An internet statement posted on Wednesday attributed to his group, al Qaeda in Iraq, described as "lies" media reports that Zarqawi might be dead.
As violence persists, preparations continue for the next phase of the trial of Saddam Hussein, the man under whom Sunnis were once dominant, on charges of crimes against humanity.
A US official close to the court said defence lawyers had ended a boycott after their security concerns had been resolved and they would be present when the trial resumes on Monday.
But a source close to one of the defence teams based in Amman said details were still being worked out.
The proceedings were plunged into chaos when two defence lawyers were killed within days of the trial opening on October 19.
Saddam and seven co-defendants are charged with crimes against humanity in the deaths of 148 Shi'ite men following an attempt on Saddam's life in 1982.