Baghdad: Islamic militants held around 120 Iraqi Christians hostage for nearly four hours in a church Sunday before security forces stormed the building and freed them, ending a standoff that left at least 19 people dead, US and Iraqi officials said.
Security officials said the militants, who were allegedly linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, were on the phone with Iraqi authorities demanding the release of imprisoned female insurgents when security forces stormed the building.
The standoff began at dusk when the militants attacked the nearby Iraqi stock exchange, officials said. Police then chased the insurgents toward the Our Lady of Deliverance church, one of Baghdad’s main Catholic places of worship.
Worshippers inside were listening to a Bible reading when the gunmen burst in, said parishioner Marzina Matti Yalda.
“As we went outside the hall to see what was happening, gunmen stormed the main gate and they started to shoot at us,” Yalda said. “Many people fell down, including a priest, while some of us ran inside and took shelter in a locked room. We were packed together as we waited for the security forces to arrive.”
A US Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Eric Bloom, said at least 19 people were killed — seven hostages, seven Iraqi security troops and five militants. He said the assailants were wearing suicide vests and armed with grenades. As many as 30 people were wounded, including a priest and a nun, he said.
Iraqi military officials said the death toll was at least nine, while police and medical officials put it as high as 37. The figures could not be immediately reconciled.
There were also conflicting reports about the militants’ fate. An Iraqi police official put the number of insurgents at 10 and said all were captured. And Baghdad military spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said security forces killed eight attackers, while the US military said between five and seven attackers died. Different figures are normal immediately following such attacks.
Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qadir al-Obeidi said “the terrorists were planning to murder the highest number of hostages.” Across Iraq, security forces were alerted to new threats against Christians.
A cryptically worded statement posted late Sunday on a militant website allegedly by the Islamic State of Iraq appeared to claim responsibility for the attack. The group, which is linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, said it would “exterminate Iraqi Christians” if Muslim women are not freed within 48 hours from ministries and churches run by the Christian Coptic church in Egypt.
The message’s authenticity could not be immediately verified.
Iraqi Christians, who have been frequent targets for Sunni insurgents, have left in droves since the 2003 US-led war. Some 1.25 million Christians, 80% of them Catholic, used to live in Iraq. There are an estimated 870,000 left today.
“The government shoulders some responsibility when it fails to protect its citizens,” said Younadim Kanna, an Iraqi parliamentarian who is Christian. “Despite all of these terrorist attacks against the Christians, we are determined not to leave our country. And we will not be intimidated.”
A senior Iraqi intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the insurgents called military forces and demanded the release of women prisoners linked to al-Qaida in Iraq, including an Egyptian woman whom they named.
An Iraqi police official said security forces stormed the church while the insurgents were on the phone. The US military said American forces provided air support only.
Earlier this year, the US-based National Council of Churches warned the State Department that Iraq’s political deadlock could pose a threat to the nation’s Christians if they get caught between Shiites and Sunnis competing for political power following inconclusive elections in March.
Nearly eight months after the vote, Iraqi officials have yet to settle on a power-sharing agreement or choose new leaders — a delay that many fear could undermine the country’s still fragile security.
Political leaders seemed no closer to an agreement Sunday, even feuding over an offer from neighboring Saudi Arabia — a Sunni Arab power — to help broker a deal.
The Shiite faction led by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rebuffed the Saudi initiative — despite welcoming assistance from Iran, the region’s Shiite power.
Al-Maliki’s chief rival, the Iraqiya list, has welcomed the Saudi offer. Iraqiya drew heavily on Iraq’s Sunni minority to narrowly defeat the prime minister’s bloc in the March elections.
With its power and money, Saudi Arabia commands wide influence over Sunni Arab states. But its leadership has asked that Iraqi leaders meet in Riyadh in mid-November at the earliest — extending a process that most feel has already gone on long enough.
“The Iraqis are always asking where are the Arab initiatives, where are the Arab efforts? This is it,” Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal told reporters in Riyadh. He said the kingdom was not looking to meddle in Iraqi internal affairs and sought only to help broker an agreement: “We have no objective but to help.”