UPDATE 2-Suicide bomber kills Iraqi Sunni Muslim lawmaker

Reuters Middle East

* Bomber kills lawmaker in Sunni heartland of Anbar

* No claims, but al Qaeda reviviing in province

* Attack may fuel tensions over mass Sunni protests

FALLUJA, Iraq, Jan 15 (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed an

Iraqi Sunni Muslim lawmaker as he visited a construction site on

Tuesday, threatening to deepen a crisis over Sunni protests

against Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Posing as a worker, the attacker hugged Efan al-Esawi before

detonating an explosive vest to kill the politician, who once

campaigned against al Qaeda after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion,

police and local officials said.

No one claimed responsibility for the bomb near Falluja, in

western Anbar province. But insurgents may be seeking to stir

tensions over Sunni protests at a time when sectarian violence

is again on the rise since U.S. troops left in December 2011.

"One of the workers at the site went toward him, he thought

he wanted something. The worker hugged him and then blew himself

up," said Sadoun Ubaid, deputy head of Anbar provincial council.

"This man was targeted because he led the fight against al

Qaeda. That is why they would target him," he said.

Esawi was one of the architects of Sahwa tribal resistance

against al-Qaeda in Anbar's Sunni heartland that helped turn the

tide of the war against insurgents battling U.S. troops at the

height of the conflict.

Iraq's al-Qaeda wing, Islamic State of Iraq, has pledged to

win back ground lost during the war and has been reinvigorated

by Sunni Islamists fighting against President Bashar al-Assad in

neighbouring Syria.

TEST FOR MALIKI

The Sunni protests have become a serious test for Shi'ite

premier Maliki since they erupted in late December after

authorities arrested the bodyguards of Finance Minister Rafaie

al-Esawi, a Sunni Muslim, on terrorism charges.

Sunni leaders said those arrests were part of an extended

campaign to unfairly target their minority sect by security

forces. Many Sunnis feel they have been sidelined from

power-sharing by the Shi'ite Muslim-led Baghdad government.

The unrest erupted as Syria's war, where mostly Sunni

insurgents are battling Assad, an ally of Shi'ite Iran, is

stirring regional tensions and testing Iraq's own fragile

sectarian and ethnic balance.

Nearly 4,500 civilians were killed in insurgent-linked

violence in Iraq in 2012, the first annual climb in the toll in

three years, according to the rights group Iraq Body Count).

At least one big bombing took place each month in 2012,

usually targeting security forces, government offices or Shi'ite

Muslims. However, it has not reached the level of inter communal

slaughter that followed the invasion which toppled former

President Saddam Hussein.

Talks to end the protests have faltered, but lawmakers from

Maliki's National Alliance Shi'ite coalition and Iraqiya are

scheduled to meet on Wednesday afternoon, said Abbas al-Bayati,

a member of the premier's political bloc.

Iraq's government said on Tuesday it had released more than

300 prisoners held under anti-terrorism laws as a goodwill

gesture to try to appease demonstrators.

Sunni ranks are split over demands of the protests, with

more hardline leaders calling for Maliki to step down and others

seeking an amnesty law and modification of other legislation

they say unfairly targets their community.

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