Latest News

More civilians killed in Iraq, signaling shift toward `soft targets'

BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. forces on Tuesday airlifted to Germany the sole survivor of an attack on an American humanitarian mission that killed her four fellow Christian missionaries Monday evening. The team was in northern Iraq to plan a water-purification project and "share God's love with the Iraqi people."

Also on Tuesday, gunmen killed two European contractors in southern Iraq and an Iraqi translator in the north, continuing what U.S. military commanders see as a shift toward "soft targets"—meaning civilians—in the insurgency's campaign to disrupt coalition efforts to rebuild Iraq as a Western-style democracy.

"Clearly there has been a shift in the insurgency and the way the extremists are conducting operations," said American Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, whose troops have taken a heavy toll from suicide bombings, roadside bombs and shooting attacks in the year-old American-led occupation of Iraq. "It is very clear they are going after these targets that might create some splits within the coalition."

No group has claimed responsibility for the killing spree, which started Monday evening in east Mosul, 240 miles north of Baghdad.

Gunmen opened fire on the missionaries' car, killing Larry Elliott, 60, and his wife, Jean, 58, of Cary, N.C.; Karen Watson, 38, of Bakersfield, Calif.; and David McDonnall, 28, of Rowlett, Texas. McDonnall died early Tuesday while being evacuated by air to Baghdad for "more specialized care" after treatment at an Iraqi hospital followed by surgery at the U.S. Army Support Hospital in Mosul, an American Army spokesman said.

McDonnall's wife, Carrie Taylor McDonnall, 26, was treated in both Mosul hospitals as well, then airlifted to Germany, said a statement from their sponsor, the Southern Baptist International Mission Board. She was in critical condition.

A senior coalition military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said it was too early in the investigation to tell whether the five were targeted because they were spotted as foreigners or singled out as Christians in this mostly Muslim society.

"I don't think we're at the point yet where they are breaking it down to targeting Christian missionaries," he said. Rather, with U.S. and other coalition troops improving their tactics and protection, he theorized that the insurgents have turned to "soft targets and Western civilians."

In Richmond, Va., members of the mission board said the delegation was trying to do good works in Iraq by researching a possible water-purification project. The missionaries' Web site claims 5,400 "messengers" in 175 countries and boasts that 1,000 new believers are being baptized each day.

"Southern Baptists have sought ways to share God's love with the Iraqi people. Last fall, Southern Baptist churches in the United States sent more than 3 million pounds of food to Iraq," said Clyde Meador, the executive vice president of the mission board, which is run by the Southern Baptist Convention.

"Our personnel, as Americans and Christians, are well aware of the risk of living and serving in a place like Iraq. Yet their love of the Iraqi people and obedience to the conviction of God's leadership have been expressed in a willingness to take that risk—even to giving their lives."

The organization was tight-lipped about its activities in Iraq, citing security precautions. Mosul has one of Iraq's largest Christian-Arab communities, which had special protections and alliances with Saddam Hussein's regime. Several of the organization's members, reached by phone and e-mail Tuesday, said the Mosul group wasn't evangelizing, which would be risky in Iraq, where Muslims are wary of Western intentions.

Spokesmen wouldn't say whether the group had suspended Iraqi operations and whether any more missionaries remained in the country, citing security fears.

The group's Web site on Tuesday featured an article quoting a missionary at a June Baptist convention in Phoenix as describing some grand Iraqi designs.

"The greatest need in Iraq right now is for five Kingdom Families who will go and plant their hearts and their lives among the Kurds of the north, the Turkmen of Mosul and Kirkuk, the Sunnis around Tikrit, the ancient church that lives in that area, and the Shiite villages round Karbala and Najaf," the missionary was quoted as saying.

"We need people who will not only go for a little while but will go and plant their lives and be the kind of families that reach other families and cause the kind of church-planting movements that will truly change history there."

It isn't known how many Christian missionaries have come to Iraq since Saddam's regime collapsed. Two other movements—Baptist Medical Missions International and the Baptist Bible Fellowship International—were registered Tuesday as guest organizations at an Iraqi office for humanitarian groups, set up under coalition protection in Baghdad's so-called Green Zone.

Iraqi Police, FBI agents and the senior American military command in northern Iraq, Task Force Olympia, were investigating the Christians' killings, said Lt. Col. Joseph Piek, a U.S. Army spokesman in Mosul.

The civilian killings continued Tuesday.

Gunmen raked a car carrying two European contractors near Hilla, south of Baghdad, killing a German and a Dutchman along with their Iraqi driver and a police officer. They were reportedly in the country working on a water supply project near the Shiite Muslim city of Karbala.

Earlier, the American military in Mosul reported that an Iraqi translator who worked for coalition forces was killed and two family members were injured the morning after the missionary attack when their car was ambushed and struck by small arms fire.

"These deliberate attacks show a total disregard for innocent human life," said Army Brig. Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of Task Force Olympia. "Killing and injuring innocent Iraqi citizens shows the murderous and cynical intent of terrorists to undermine freedom and progress in Iraq."

The missionary movement described its Mosul delegation as a blend of experienced messengers of the Gospel and newcomers.

The Elliotts arrived in Iraq just last month after serving as paid missionaries in Honduras since 1978, said member Sean Hendricks. Watson had been in Iraq about a year. The McDonnalls were on their maiden mission. They arrived in November, on leave from the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

Members at the movement's Virginia headquarters said they didn't know whether the delegation had received threats before the attack. Security was being re-evaluated.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MISSIONARIES


Related stories from McClatchy DC