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Church bombings target Christian minority in Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Coordinated car bombs tore through five churches in Iraq Sunday, hitting worshippers with an explosion of flames and shrapnel in the first post-war attack on the nation's Christian minority.

Four of the bombings were in Baghdad, just minutes apart as dusk was falling, and a fifth came in the northern city of Mosul at about the same time.

At least 10 Iraqis were killed and 40 wounded, according to the U.S. military.

The bombings were just one aspect of violence in Iraq on Sunday: a separate car bomb outside a police station in Mosul killed five and wounded more than 40 while a roadside bomb in Baghdad killed three Iraqis and injured three others. In all, at least 18 were killed and 80 wounded during the day.

But the church bombings were the most troubling, underscoring fears that the generalized chaos here could one day openly pit ethnic and religious groups against one another.

Daniel Eshaya, spokesman for the Assyrian Democratic Movement, a Christian Iraqi political party, said he saw the bombings as the culmination of a series of attacks on Christian-run liquor stores—first in southern Iraq and then Baghdad—for which he blames radical Islamic groups.

Emmanuel Khoshaba, a leadership council member of the Assyrian Patriotic Party, agreed.

"It began when they started attacking stores that sold alcohol," he said. "They are targeting Christians to start a civil war."

But Sabah Khadum, spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry, said he thought the attacks might have had more to do with the fact that the United States and Britain, the dominant military presence in Iraq, are Christian countries.

"The foreign forces here are from Christian countries. It is just a dirty political action," Khadum said, noting that Christians make up only five percent of the nation's population and could hardly be counted on to start full-blown civil war.

The first bomb went off in front of an Armenian church just south of downtown at about 6:30 p.m. local time. Ten minutes later, another blast rocked an Assyrian church a few blocks away. At 7 p.m., a church in Mosul was hit first by a rocket and then a car bomb. And then at 7:15 p.m. two Chaldean churches, one in east Baghdad and the other in southern Baghdad, were bombed.

The blasts sent Iraqi emergency and police vehicles racing from one site to the other. When ambulances reached their capacity, the wounded were piled into cars and trucks.

Local hospitals were filled with men, women and children; some with flesh sagging from burns, others with gaping wounds from shrapnel.

Looking at her 12-year-old son, Mustafa, lying on an emergency room bed, Sahiria Abid wailed.

"I've forgotten everything, I've lost my mind—oh my son, oh my son," she said. "He's going to die."

Mustafa, who had a large chunk of metal shrapnel in his head, stared blankly at the ceiling, slipping in and out of consciousness.

Another young boy, his skin seared and slipping off him, was being wheeled to an ambulance outside. As they moved him from one stretcher to another, a thick film of his flesh was left behind, as he screamed.

"Why are you looking at me like that?" he said, his voice slurred by pain and shock. "What happened? What happened?"

His sobbing mother said his name, Haider, over and over, slapping herself in the head.

At the bombsites, soldiers from the 1st Cavalry Division attempted to close off the perimeter, but had difficulty containing the surging crowds.

At one of the churches, a young Army specialist screamed in English: "Get back! Get back to the other side of the sidewalk. Do you understand me? GET BACK!"

The crowd, not understanding him, continued to push.

The Assyrian church appeared to be among the most seriously damaged. The blast gouged a 4-foot-deep by 6-foot-wide crater and blew apart much of a brick wall surrounding the church. Inside the church compound, the explosion broke or ripped away the stone facades of more than a dozen tombs.

Opposite the church, the blast buckled the brick wall of a two-story residence, cascading bricks onto the street and parked cars.

At least nine cars and a van were demolished. Glass, brick, stone and car parts littered streets for several hundred feet. Building windows were shattered.

As firemen doused smoldering flames beneath the debris, nervous police fired warning shots. Rumors swirled among anxious onlookers that another bomb would explode nearby.

Barely a hundred feet away, Najah Saada Karam, 50, was inside his home at the time of the blast.

"The house shook and the windows smashed into my face," he said, displaying cuts on his arms and head. "When I went outside, I saw a huge amount of smoke coming from the church. Cars were burning, and people were lying on the ground."

When he walked outside, Karam said, he saw a man with both hands blown off.

In front of the eastern Baghdad Chaldean church, a man who gave only his first name, Ahmed, wandered the crowd with a stunned look on his face. His clothes were covered with blood from his attempts to lift a man out of a burning car.

"There was a child, I also carried a child—what was his fault, what did he do to suffer like this," he said, stumbling over his words. "I will tell you, it's very hard to watch a person burned in front of your eyes."

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

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

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