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By Raheem Salman
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United Nations on Thursday called on Iraq to suspend use of the death penalty after authorities executed 21 people on the same day following their conviction on terrorism charges.
The high rate of executions, making Iraq the world's most prolific user of the death penalty after China and Iran, has put the country under fire from human rights groups. So far 32 people have been executed in Iraq this month.
Executions are a sensitive issue for Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki whose government faces rallies by thousands of Sunni Muslims against what they see as marginalisation of their sect.
"I regret that repeated calls of the United Nations to suspend the implementation of death sentences were not heard," U.N. representative Martin Kobler said.
"I urge once again the Iraqi government to immediately suspend all pending death sentences and to apply without delay the moratorium."
The justice ministry said 21 people had been executed on Tuesday for crimes linked to al Qaeda, including five accused of trying to attack Maliki's convoy.
An Amnesty International report this year said that since the Iraqi government restored the death penalty in 2005 at least 447 prisoners had been executed, including Saddam Hussein, his main associates and suspected members of armed groups.
"Hundreds of prisoners currently await execution on death row, and Iraq - where 129 prisoners were hanged last year - is now one of the world's leading executioners," the report said.
Sunni political ranks are increasingly divided over how to work with Maliki, who some critics say is amassing power at their expense of Sunni and ethnic Kurdish parties in his power-sharing government.
Negotiations to end the protests have been stalled in part because executions have continued. The government insists it will carry out the death penalty as required, dismissing complaints the law is applied unfairly to Sunnis.
"We will continue with executions against terrorists and killers whether they are Sunni or Shi'ite," Justice Minister Hassan Al-Shimmeri said. "It is a victory for innocent victims and deterrent against criminal murderers."
(Editing by Patrick Markey and Andrew Roche)