BAGHDAD - 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 US 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.