* New trend coincides with political vacuum--rights group
* Defence ministry urges new laws to crack down on trend
By Waleed Ibrahim
BAGHDAD, Oct 3 (Reuters) - Militants in Iraq are resorting increasingly to guns with silencers to attack security forces and government officials, as successes against insurgents have made it harder for them to carry out trademark bombings.
Analysts say the new, more evasive method of targeting enemies has coincided with the political limbo that has gripped Iraq since an inconclusive March election, giving insurgents some space and time to explore new methods of attacks.
Monitor of Constitutional Freedom and Bill of Rights, an Iraqi non-governmental organisation (NGO), said 686 people had been killed with silenced weapons so far this year in Iraq, citing Iraqi police and military figures.
That compared with 473 during all of 2009 and 270 in 2008.
Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal, Iraq's deputy interior minister, said militant groups were changing tactics because security advances had robbed them of some of their ability to carry out large-scale attacks, such as car bombings, that had become their calling card.
"For this reason they resort to these deadly tactics," he said. "These weapons are easy to carry and hide."
Silenced guns are now used frequently in attacks on police and soldiers at security checkpoints, as well as on politicians, government workers and the government-backed Sahwa militia.
In a bulletin this month, the constitutional rights NGO directly linked the trend to delays in the formation of a new government because this had offered insurgents a fresh opportunity to exploit the power vacuum.
Iraqis had hoped the vote would help bring some calm as the country emerges from years of war. But, seven months on, it is still locked in a stalemate as factions jostle for power.
Military leaders say Islamist insurgents have targeted people connected with the government since the March election as they seek to further destabilise the battle-weary country.
On Sunday, gunmen using silenced weapons drove by a police checkpoint and opened fire, killing one policeman, in the city of Falluja, a police source said. [ID:nKAM327630]
Major General Mohammed al-Askari, a defence ministry spokesman, said the ministry has called on the government to enforce a special law against those who carry, manufacture and trade in silenced weapons.
Iraq is flooded with weapons and many ordinary Iraqis own small arms to protect themselves. But Askari said that muffled weapons were the hallmark of gunmen specifically bent on murder.
"The intention of those who carry these kinds of weapons are different from those who carry normal weapons," he said. "Those who carry silenced weapons have intention to kill."
Baghdad has had the highest number of silenced-weapon killings this year, 230, followed by the troubled northern province of Nineveh with 209, the human rights group said.
Kamal agreed silenced-weapon killings had increased this year, but called the NGO's figures "exaggerated." He would not reveal government statistics.
"Of course it worries us. This phenomenon has increased recently, especially in Baghdad," Kamal said. "We are doing our best through our intelligence to find those behind it."
The U.S. military, which called a formal halt to combat operations in Iraq in August, says the Nineveh capital, Mosul, is the last urban stronghold of al Qaeda militants.
Washington still has around 50,000 troops in Iraq and has touted recent successes against insurgents, but there are concerns about the ability of Iraqi security forces to combat the stubborn insurgency efficiently. (Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Mark Heinrich)
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