BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Armed men killed seven Shi'ite pilgrims in ambushes on Friday, police and hospital sources said, in the latest attacks to highlight underlying sectarian and ethnic tensions in Iraq.
Political tensions in the country have been high since U.S. troops withdrew in December, when Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government moved against two top Sunni officials - seeking the arrest of Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi and the removal of Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq.
The crisis sparked protests in Sunni strongholds and raised fears of a return to the sectarian slaughter that engulfed Iraq a few years ago.
On Friday, two cars blocked a bus carrying pilgrims from Baghdad to a key Shi'ite shrine in the northern, mainly Sunni, city of Samarra. Some seven gunmen opened fire, killing five and wounding six of them in the attack at around 5 a.m. (0200 GMT) near Tarmiya, 25 km (15 miles) north of the capital, a local police source said.
The bombing of the golden-domed Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006 was a catalyst in igniting two years of sectarian violence that drove Iraq to the brink of civil war.
A second incident occurred at 7.30 a.m. in the southern outskirts of Baghdad when gunmen killed two Shi'ite pilgrims en route to the holy Shi'ite city of Kerbala in Iraq's south. Six others were wounded, police and hospital sources said.
While overall violence in Iraq has fallen since the peak of sectarian fighting in 2006-07, bombings and killings still occur daily. Most attacks are blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents who have refused to lay down arms after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
On Wednesday, militants targeting Shi'ite families in Baquba killed five people in bombings that occurred after leaflets were distributed telling Shi'ites to leave the neighborhood or be killed.
Iraq's coalition government is a delicate mix of Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds and was formed under a fragile power-sharing agreement after an inconclusive election in 2010.
(Reporting by Kareem Raheem; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)