Iraqi worshipers, troops killed in church takeover

1.jpgBy Ernesto Londoño and Aziz Alwan
BAGHDAD – At least seven Iraqi Christian worshipers and seven Iraqi security forces were killed Sunday night after commandos stormed a church in Baghdad where a band of suicide bombers had been holding parishioners hostage, Iraqi and U.S. military officials said.

As Iraqi troops stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Church in the upscale Karradah neighborhood shortly after 9 p.m., some of the assailants detonated suicide vests, said Lt. Col. Eric Bloom, a U.S. military spokesman.

The mayhem underscored how dangerous the Iraqi capital remains as a deepening political crisis continues. Iraqi lawmakers remain at an impasse over who is entitled to lead the next government after the March 7 parliamentary election. Many Iraqis fear that the impasse could sow instability and violence as the U.S. military mission here winds down.

Between 20 to 30 people were wounded in the attack and subsequent rescue operation to free the approximately 120 hostages attending evening Mass, Bloom said. He said all the attackers were gunned down, but an Iraqi official said some were in custody.

Bloom, who got the casualty numbers from the Iraqi army, said the death toll could rise. An Iraqi security official said at least 21 civilians and troops were killed.

The assailants, armed with grenades, rifles and at least one car bomb, turned a relatively secure neighborhood into a battleground. The operation was apparently carried out in a failed effort to secure the release of prisoners in Iraqi custody who belong to the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

The attack Sunday began around sunset at a branch of the Baghdad stock market located near the church. Gunmen lobbed grenades and exchanged gunfire with guards at the exchange, killing two, an Iraqi police official said.

As Iraqi security forces moved in, the assailants jumped in a car, drove it to the entrance of the Our Lady of Salvation Church, got out and detonated explosives inside the vehicle, authorities said.

Sunday Mass was being held inside the Assyrian Christian church when the gunmen, reportedly wearing explosive vests, ran inside.

Hussain Abdul Amir, 35, who lives nearby and witnessed the attack, said the gunmen did not appear to be Iraqi.

“Their accent was not Iraqi,” he said.

He said the gunmen were demanding the release of al-Qaeda in Iraq inmates in Iraqi custody.

Other witnesses and officials quoted by Iraqi television stations supported that account. Iraqi police officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to talk to reporters.

Residents in the area ran for cover as Iraqi security forces and a small team of U.S. military officials set up a security perimeter outside.

The hostages were held for about two hours, during which lengthy exchanges of gunfire and explosions were heard in the area.

Shortly after 9 p.m., Iraqi elite troops stormed the church and killed the four gunmen. It was not clear whether hostages, security forces or bystanders were hurt during the operation.

“We were able to assassinate all the gunmen,” a police official said minutes after it was over. “They were all wearing suicide vests.”