Iraq pours police into Mosul to protect Christians

123.jpgMOSUL, Iraq (AFP) — Iraq ordered nearly 1,000 police to patrol Christian areas of Mosul on Sunday as thousands of members of the minority group fled the worst violence against them in five years.

The action came as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered an immediate investigation into the murders of Christians in the restive northern city, and pledged to take all steps necessary to protect the threatened community.

“We will take immediate action to resolve the problems and difficulties faced by Christians in Mosul,” Maliki said in a statement released by his office after a crisis meeting with two Christian lawmakers.

Two brigades of national police were deployed in Mosul from midnight in the city, considered by US and Iraqi commanders as the last urban stronghold of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, interior ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf told AFP.

Two investigation teams, one security and the other criminal, have also been sent to probe a spate of attacks on Christians in Mosul since September 28, in which at least 11 people have been killed, Khalaf added.

An AFP correspondent said police have set up checkpoints at churches in the city’s four largely Christian areas and are patrolling the streets on foot.

Nearly 1,000 Christian families have fled their homes in the city since Friday, taking shelter on the northern and eastern fringes of Nineveh province, according to provincial governor Duraid Kashmula.123-1.jpg

Kashmula said the violence was the worst against Christians in five years.

“(It) is the fiercest campaign against Christians since 2003,” Kashmula told AFP on Saturday. “Among those killed over the past 11 days were a doctor, an engineer and a handicapped person.”

At least three homes of Christians were blown up by unidentified attackers on Saturday, security officials said.

Mosul military command spokesman Khalid Abdul-Satar said he did not know who was behind the violence but pledged to protect the Christian community.

In the latest incidents in the city, at least seven Iraqis were killed and several dozen wounded on Sunday in three attacks in Mosul, two of them suicide car bombs aimed at American and Iraqi soldiers, the US military and a police source said.

“In the first suicide car bomb, the one targeting coalition forces but with no coalition casualties, we have five killed and 10 wounded,” US army spokesman Staff Sergeant Sam Smith said.

Among the dead were three young boys, one six, one seven and one of unknown age, he said.

“The second car bomb was targeting Iraqi police and wounded 25 Iraqis. We don’t know how many were police or civilians,” Smith said.

In the third incident, two Iraqis died and three were hurt as a homemade device exploded outside a prison, a Mosul police source said.

The US army could not say if the car bomb attacks happened in the largely Christian neighbourhoods which have been the target of a campaign of violence in recent days.

At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday condemned the violence against Christians in both Iraq and India.

“I invite you to pray for peace and reconciliation as situations cause concern and great suffering…. I think of violence against Christians in Iraq and India,” he said.

Since the US-led invasion of 2003 more than 200 Christians had been killed and a string of churches attacked, with the violence intensifying in recent weeks, particularly in the north, he added.

There were around 800,000 Christians in Iraq at the time of the US-led invasion, a number that has since shrunk by around a third as the faithful have fled the country, the archbishop said.

In March, the body of the Chaldean archbishop of Mosul, Paul Faraj Rahho, 65, was found in a shallow grave in the city two weeks after he was kidnapped as he returned home from celebrating mass.

Iraq’s Christian community includes various denominations, including Syrian Orthodox and Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic congregations