BAGHDAD | Eight members of one Shi’ite family were killed south of Baghdad on Monday in the worst incident of a bloody day across Iraq that left at least 23 dead. The spate of attacks — and the fact that some of the family were beheaded — raised fears that insurgents are trying to re-ignite sectarian warfare at a time when the country is preparing for critical March elections.
The March 7 election will determine who will oversee the country as the U.S. forces go home, and whether Iraq will be able to overcome the deep sectarian divides that almost destroyed it during the height of the fighting in past years.
A “terrorist group” using guns fixed with silencers shot and beheaded eight members of a single family in the village of Wahda, a mixed Shi’ite-Sunni village 20 miles south of the capital, the Baghdad security command said in a statement.
Authorities provided no further details about how many were shot and how many beheaded. Beheadings have been performed before by extremist Sunni insurgents.
“The crime of killing my brother, his wife and six children, five girls and one boy, is an ugly and ruthless crime,” said Mahdi Majid Maryoush al-Qabi, a brother of the slain father of six.
A Baghdad police officer and witnesses said the family belonged to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority. The police officer said the family had been displaced from their home during the sectarian fighting in 2006 and had just returned in 2009.
During the fighting of 2006 and 2007, hundreds of thousands of families fled their homes across Iraq due to death threats, killings and kidnappings, as neighborhoods and towns that were once mixed with Sunnis and Shi’ites were almost emptied of one sect or the other.
As the situation in the country has become safer, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government has tried to encourage people to return to their previous homes, even offering cash payments to people who return. While the effort has met with some success in certain areas, such a brutal killing could serve as a stark warning to others looking to return home.
The mixed sectarian region south of Baghdad where the deaths occurred was a flash point for violence.
The incident comes as U.S. forces are slated to draw down after the election, but Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the top U.S. general in Iraq said he could slow troops’ exit if Iraq’s politics are chaotic following the vote.
Gen. Odierno said there are no signs that would be necessary but said he has briefed his superiors about the plan during his meetings in Washington this week.
In other violence, gunmen broke into the home of a family in Baghdad, killing all four, police said. However, authorities said the motive might have been robbery, noting that the gunmen took the family’s car.
Six people were hurt after three mortar rounds struck Baghdad’s Green Zone early Monday morning. Five people died after a booby-trapped car blew up in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, 70 miles west of Baghdad, two police officials said.