BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi officials are seeing a shift in violence in Iraq from mass car bombings to assassinations using magnetic bombs, weapons with silencers and bicycle bombs. As provincial elections approach, some officials worry that assassinations will increase as political parties try to eradicate their competitors.
"Some of the organizations that are seeking political power are resorting to intimidation and violence," said Maj. Gen. Michael L. Oates, the commander of the Army's 10th Mountain Division, whose area of command includes most of southern Iraq. "So you'll see individual bombs used against a prominent member of a party. I personally think we will see an uptick of that type of violence as we go into the election cycle because . . . the way some people deal with political tension here is to eliminate the other parties by using violence."
On Thursday, a prominent parliament member from the Shiite Muslim faction led by radical cleric Muqtada al Sadr was killed near his home when an explosive-laden motorcycle rammed his convoy. Saleh al Ugaili died in a Baghdad hospital of his wounds.
In the largely Shiite south, a Karbala city council member was killed by a magnetic bomb attached to his car. In Baghdad, another magnetic bomb killed a man as he drove through a busy shopping district.
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The Ministry of Interior has issued a warning asking people not to park in public places to avoid militants attaching magnetic bombs to vehicles. The weapon is then remotely detonated using a cell phone.
Ugaili's death struck fear in other parliament members and drew strong condemnations from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, a Shiite, the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, and from the top U.S. officials in Iraq.
"This heinous crime was not just an attack against Dr. al Ugaili; it was an attack against Iraq's democratic institutions," said a joint statement from Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
This month, Odierno acknowledged that he was seeing a shift in tactics.
"What we're seeing is a change in tactics by both al Qaida and the (Shiite) special groups, or the special rogue elements that have been trained in Iran. What you're seeing is they are conducting intimidation assassinations against (Iraqi) government officials," Odierno told USA Today.
U.S. military officials said they've seen as many as 200 such attacks this year. Although the bombs, which are relatively easy to make, have been used since 2005, the numbers were so low they weren't tracked before this year, a military official said.
Although U.S. military officials have little to no information about the increasing use of silencers, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior has seen a rise in their use against its employees, as well as others. In the last three weeks, eight Ministry of Interior officials have been killed or wounded by men using weapons with silencers, said Brig. Gen. Abdel Kareem Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.
"I think the political process itself is the target. There are some . . . who don't want the political process to go on and are targeting the politicians," said Maysoon al Damluji, a secular legislator who mourned her colleague's death Thursday.
In July and August, at least 10 people were assassinated each month, mostly in Baghdad, by gunmen using silencers, police said.
Khalaf said the ministry has seen an uptick in the use of silencers in the last three weeks and in assassinations in general in the last two months. The ministry has detained some 112 people suspected of using weapons with silencers, Khalaf said.
"We have noticed a shift from targeting of masses to targeting of specific persons," Khalaf said. He added that the rise in magnetic bombs, known as sticky bombs, could be a result of the anonymity the bombs provide.
In the New Baghdad district of the capital, men with silencers have killed as many as seven people in the last two months, residents say. All were prominent Iraqi officers or members of Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's movement, they say.
Jawad al Hattab, the bureau chief for the Arabic satellite news channel al Arabiya, was saved by a series of fortunate events last month. He was running late for work, and his driver was tired of sitting in the hot car. So he got out of the vehicle and pulled a foldout chair from his trunk.
He unfolded the chair, placed it on the sidewalk and sat. That's when he saw the protruding object under the passenger seat, where Hattab usually sits. The men rushed to warn away civilians and called the bomb squad. Twenty minutes later the bomb detonated and destroyed the car, but killed no one.
Some people have decided that the best way to avoid the magnetic bombs is to stay home.
Yusra Abdul Hussein, an English teacher, walks or takes taxis instead of using her car.
"We are afraid, so afraid that we stopped going out to public places in our car because we would have to park it in a public parking lot — and when I think about that — my hair stands on end," Hussein said. "Who owns the garage? Who is the guard? Who is passing by the car? It takes only a minute to stick it on — and my whole family would be killed."
(McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this article.)
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