Iraq archbishop decries Christian deaths in Mosul

BAGHDAD – An Iraqi archbishop on Wednesday expressed concern over what he called a “campaign of killings and deportations” against Christians in the northern city of Mosul after police reported six Christians killed in separate attacks this month.

A female suicide bomber also blew herself up near government offices in Baqouba, northeast of the capital, killing 11 people, Iraqi officials said.

The violence in both cities occurred despite U.S.-Iraqi operations launched over the summer aimed at routing al-Qaida in Iraq insurgents from remaining strongholds north of the capital.

Iraqi police in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, have reported finding the bullet-riddled bodies of six Christians in separate attacks so far in October. Those included the owner of a clothing store, a teenager, two day laborers, a man working in a pharmacy, a handicapped man who owns a spare parts store.

“We are worried about the campaign of killings and deportations against the Christian citizens in Mosul,” Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako said in a statement.

“Such violations are damaging the national unity,” Sako said. “The Christians want only to live in peace and harmony and to work together with all Iraqis for the benefit of Iraq.”

Sako is based in the northern city of Kirkuk but has overseen the Christian community in Mosul since the killing of Archbishop Paulos Faraj Rahho, whose body was found in mid-March after he was kidnapped by gunmen following Mass.

Iraqi Christians have frequently been targeted by Islamic extremists since the 2003 U.S. invasion, forcing tens of thousands to free the country. But attacks have tapered off amid a drastic decline in overall violence nationwide.

The Iraqi Democratic Assyrian Movement, the main Christian political group in Iraq, also accused local authorities in Mosul of failing to protect the Christian population.

“We call upon the government to shoulder its responsibilities in providing security and in stopping the bloodshed of innocent people and to stop the organized deportations against our people in Mosul,” the group said in a statement.

Christian leaders have been lobbying the Iraqi parliament to pass a law that would set aside a number of seats for minorities in upcoming provincial elections, saying they fear being further sidelined in the Islamic country.

The explosion in Baqouba occurred just before noon across the street from the city’s courthouse, shattering nearby storefronts and leaving pools of blood on the pavement.

“We were inside the court building when we heard a thunderous explosion followed by people’s cries,” said Abu Mohammed, a 55-year-old lawyer in the courthouse at the time. “We rushed outside the building. We couldn’t see anything because smoke was everywhere.”

Abu Mohammed, who would only give his nickname for security reasons, said the target appeared to be Iraqi army Humvees parked nearby.

Those killed included five Iraqi soldiers, three policemen and three civilians, police and hospital officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information. They also said 19 people were wounded.

The U.S. military said seven people — five Iraqi soldiers and two civilians — were killed and 21 civilians were wounded. Conflicting casualty tolls are common in Iraq due to the chaos at the scene.

A company of U.S. soldiers was on its first combat patrol when it responded to the attack.

“It’s a cold realization that it’s not just pictures. It’s real and it’s really happening. American soldiers aren’t here for nothing. These people need the help,” said Spc. Duztin Watson, 24, of Houston.

The head of the Diyala provincial council Ibrahim Bajilan initially said a man believed to be an intended second suicide bomber had been arrested. But police said the man was later found to be innocent and released.

Baqouba and surrounding areas have been struck by several female bombers in recent months despite U.S. efforts to recruit and train more women for the Iraqi security forces.

The Diyala provincial capital, 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, saw some of the fiercest fighting of the U.S.-led war until local Sunni tribal leaders, fed up with the terror network’s brutal tactics, joined forces with the U.S. military last year.

Despite the security gains, repeated attacks have occurred in the area near the central courthouse, which is surrounded by concrete barriers. The most recent was a double suicide bombing that killed at least 28 people on July 15.

The military has warned that insurgents are increasingly using women as attackers because their billowing, black robes easily hide explosives and they are less likely to be searched.

“It seems that Baqouba is infiltrated and the terrorists have a foothold in it,” Bajilan said. “They have people who offer them safe shelter and carry out attacks.” – AP