An alarming number of Iraqis killed “execution-style” last month signaled an increase in targeted killings as the overall death toll in Iraq so far this year rose above 8,000, the UN said.

The bodies, usually dumped on the street and mutilated, have heightened fears that the country is sliding back toward all-out warfare between Sunni and Shia factions.

Underscoring the dangers, three bombs tore through the funeral procession of the son of an anti-al-Qaida Sunni tribal chief northeast of Baghdad, the deadliest in a wave of attacks that killed 17 people, Iraqi officials said on Sunday.

Widespread chaos nearly tore the country apart following the 2003 US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government.

I am profoundly disturbed by the recent surge in execution-style killings that have been carried out in a particularly horrendous and unspeakable manner. 

Nickolay Mladenov, UN envoy to Iraq

Armed groups from both Islamic sects battled each other and American forces, killing tens of thousands.

Attacks have continued on a near-daily basis and political tensions remained high between Sunnis and the majority Shia who consolidated their power after the American military withdrew in December 2011.

The bloodshed accelerated sharply after a deadly April 23 crackdown by security forces on a northern Sunni protest camp, capping months of relatively peaceful demonstrations against alleged abuse at the hands of the Shia-led government.

The death toll in Iraq dropped to at least 659 in November- including 565 civilians and 94 security forces, compared with 979 in October, according to the UN mission in Iraq.

The UN also said 1,373 Iraqis were wounded in attacks last month, compared with 1,902 in October.

Baghdad and surrounding areas saw the highest number killed last month, at 224, followed by the volatile northern Ninevah province, with 107.

In all, at least 7,157 civilians and 952 Iraqi security forces have been killed since January, the UN said.

UN envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov singled out an increase in the number of bullet-riddled bodies found, including some that were beheaded, and urged the Iraqi government to move quickly to find the attackers and hold them responsible.

'Shift in tactics'

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 fighters abducted and killed members of other religious groups, although the numbers remain significantly lower.

"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.

His spokeswoman, Eliana Nabaa, said the decline in the overall death toll was due to a shift in tactics, with fighters increasingly turning to targeted killings and a reduction in the number of bombings.

"Bombings tend to kill larger numbers at any one time, whereas targeted killings usually kill the target and on occasion one or two others, hence the decline in numbers of casualties and rise in targeted killings," she said in an email.

The rise in violence comes ahead of a general election due on April 30, Iraq's first parliamentary polls in four years.

Source: AP