Christian minority targeted in Iraq

Los Angeles Daily News, CA
Aug 2 2004

Christian minority targeted in Iraq

By Somini Sengupta and Ian Fisher
The New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq — In the first significant attacks against Iraq’s
Christian minority since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein’s
government, assailants staged a series of coordinated car bombings
Sunday evening near four churches in Baghdad and another in the
northern city of Mosul.

In Baghdad, at least 11 people, including two children, were killed
in the explosions timed to coincide with Sunday evening Mass, and at
least 20 people were injured, witnesses and hospital officials said.
One person died in the Mosul attack, and seven people were injured,
according to a U.S. military report.

At least one church, in a lively Christian enclave in the Karrada
neighborhood of downtown Baghdad, was struck as the priest was giving
Communion. Next door, a Muslim family of five was killed by the
blast, which was powerful enough to rip a row of bricks from the
building’s top floor and shatter the windows inside a courtyard well
down the block. A hospital official said a Muslim passerby also was
killed in one of the blasts.

“It is a crime,” Monsignor Raphael Kutemi said in front of the
rectory of the Syrian Catholic church, Notre Dame of Deliverance. “It
is Sunday, and we were in prayer.”

The bombings Sunday seemed to mark another turning point in the
already terrifying violence that has wracked Iraq since the U.S.-led
invasion last year.

Even in this long-secular capital city, a growing tide of Islamist
extremism since the fall of Saddam’s government has shuttered liquor
stores, often owned by Christians, and beauty salons and compelled
women and girls to cover their heads. It was not clear if the attacks
on the churches were an extension of fundamentalist fervor or a
calculated escalation by insurgents who have shown a willingness to
broaden their attacks, even on fellow Muslims, in their fight against
the U.S. presence here and the new interim Iraqi government.

A few minutes before the Syrian Catholic church was struck, another
car bomb exploded in front of the nearby Armenian church as Mass was
under way. And inside a seminary compound in the south Baghdad
neighborhood of Doura, two cars loaded with explosives blew up. A
fourth explosion was set off across town in an enclave called New
Baghdad when a car carrying explosives crashed into the car in front
of it and blew up yards from a Catholic church but in front of a

Across Baghdad, the evening sky was laced with plumes of thick black
smoke. U.S. military helicopters hovered over the blast sites. The
smell of charred metal lingered in the air long after the fires were
extinguished and darkness fell.

About the same time Sunday evening, in Mosul, about 220 miles north
of Baghdad, parishioners were coming out of a Catholic church Mass
when a car bomb detonated. A U.S. military report said the blast was
caused by a bomb in a four-door Toyota Supra.

Meanwhile, the fate of seven foreign truck drivers taken hostage last
week remained uncertain.

Agence France-Presse quoted a Kenyan government official in Nairobi
as saying that all seven — three Kenyans, three Indians and an
Egyptian — had been freed. But neither the Kuwaiti company that
employed them nor the Muslim sheik who has tried to negotiate for
their release could confirm this. In fact, the sheik, Hisham
al-Dulaymi, said Sunday evening that the hostage-takers, who call
themselves the Bearers of the Black Banners, had warned him in a
letter that they were prepared to behead their captives.

Al-Dulaymi said he would not take part in any more negotiations,
saying that he believed the kidnappers would, as threatened, begin
executing hostages soon.

“They are going to carry out their threat,” he said Sunday afternoon,
showing the letter in a plain brown envelope, which he said was sent
to him by insurgents signaling that the negotiations for the
hostages’ freedom had ended in failure.

He said the hostages’ employer, Kuwait Gulf and Link Transport, had
refused to furnish what the kidnappers described as compensation
money for those killed during clashes with U.S. troops in the western
insurgency hotbed of Fallujah. He refused to specify how much the
kidnappers demanded, but it was a suggestion nonetheless of
less-than-ideological imperatives driving the hostage-taking.

Reuters, citing a Lebanese Foreign Ministry official, reported that
on Sunday Iraqi soldiers freed a Lebanese citizen who had been seized
in a separate hostage-taking. The fate of another Lebanese, taken
captive with a Syrian driver on Friday, remained unclear.

Earlier on Sunday, a suicide car bomber raced to a police station in
Mosul and blew up his vehicle, killing at least five and wounding 53,
U.S. military officials said. In Baghdad early in the morning,
another car bomb killed three and injured three others.

The Sunday strikes followed overnight clashes between U.S. troops and
insurgents in Fallujah, 35 miles west of Baghdad, in which 10 people
were killed, the U.S. military said.

The church bombings struck a singular note in the history of the
15-month insurgency. It is the first time since the March 2003
invasion that Christians, who represent less than 5 percent of the
country’s 24 million citizens, have come under fire in such a direct
way. Guerrillas have largely directed their wrath toward Iraqi
government representatives and law enforcement officials, as well as
foreign workers, translators and anyone else accused of collaborating
with the 140,000-strong U.S. troop presence here.

But the U.S.-led invasion unleashed Islamist hardliners, long
suppressed during Saddam’s rule. In Baghdad, a militia loyal to the
radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has been blamed for many of the
attacks against the largely Christian-owned liquor stores. At the
same time, the Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has been
accused by U.S. officials of assembling a core of Sunni Muslim
extremists, some from outside Iraq, to foment sectarian violence.

Sunday’s coordinated strikes sent shock waves among ordinary
Christians and Muslims alike.

“Never, I’m never going to church again on Sunday,” said Khawla Yawo
Odishah, who had escaped the bombing because a family medical
emergency had caused her to miss Mass.

As darkness fell, Odishah, 50, lingered across the street from the
compound of St. Peter Seminary in Doura, where two car bombs blew up,
torching several other cars and filling the night air with the heat
and stench of burning metal. This was the Mass many of her friends
usually attended, she said.

Faris Talis, a Muslim, said he was in his tire repair store Sunday
evening when the first car bomb exploded on the street, spattering
bits of glass and metal. He said he looked up to see a man, who he
believes was involved in the attack, run into the seminary’s parking
lot. Then the second blast went off inside the seminary compound. He
ran inside to help what he said were scores of injured and dead.

“I am a Muslim and I was evacuating them,” he said. “I feel terrible
about this. Whatever did this is a criminal. He doesn’t have any
mercy in his heart.”

In the seminary parking lot, about a dozen cars sat scorched and
smoking just inside the front wall, at least one tipped up on its
side. Glass, ash and car parts were strewn around the lot, about 50
yards from the main building. Heat radiated off the blackened metal,
as several men carried a blanket to one of the cars, apparently to
retrieve the body of someone who had been trapped inside.

In the Karada neighborhood in central Baghdad, worshippers had
gathered for Mass at the Armenian church, when, according to one
witness, a Volkswagen Passat pulled up and exploded. The engine flew
200 feet and landed in the street. Flames raced to the sky in front
of the church.

Minutes later, a few blocks away, a second explosion erupted in front
of the Syrian Catholic church, sending people running, engulfed in

Safaa Michael, who was at the service, heard the first explosion.
When the second blast came, “all the glass fell down over our heads.”
There were blood stains on his temple.

The church went suddenly dark. The explosion had cut the electricity.

Zaid Gazee Al-Janabi, 30, a security guard and a Muslim who lives
down the street, watched the bomb blow off the roof of a house next
to the church. He pulled five bodies, including those of two
children, from the ground floor. They were Muslims. They were his

Fadel Aziz, 38, a Christian businessman who lives on the block, said
he watched as the car exploded in front of him. Glass shattered along
the block and a hunk of blackened metal careened into his yard. “It
was very big,” he said. He said he saw six or seven injured, and
helped two of them into his house. Like many others, he blamed the
carnage on foreigners.

“We have lived with Muslims for thousands of years,” he said.
“Nothing like this ever happened before. They cannot be Iraqis. They
came to make trouble in the country.”