* 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
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.