Explosions target Iraq's Christians



No group has claimed responsibility yet for the attacks.
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) -- Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric condemned today as "hideous crimes" the coordinated bomb attacks on five churches in Baghdad and Mosul that killed 11 people and marked the first major attacks on Iraq's minority Christians since the insurgency began.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani said in a statement that the Sunday assaults on Christian churches "targeted Iraq's unity, stability and independence."
The unprecedented attacks against Iraq's 750,000-member Christian population -- hitting four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul -- appeared to confirm community members' fears they might be targeted as suspected collaborators with American forces amid a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.
Fear
Many of Iraq's Christians have already fled to neighboring Jordan and Syria to escape violence in the insurgency-wracked nation.
"We condemn and reproach these hideous crimes and deem necessary the collaboration of everyone -- the government and the people -- in putting an end to aggression on Iraqis," said the cleric, who is based in the southern city of Najaf.
"We assert the importance of respecting the rights of Christian civilians and other religious minorities and reaffirm their right to live in their home country, Iraq, in security and peace."
Separate violence Sunday killed 24 people, including an American soldier, and wounded dozens more. The toll included a suicide car bombing outside a Mosul police station that killed five people and wounded 53 and clashes in Fallujah between U.S. troops and insurgents that killed 12 Iraqis and wounded 39 others.
No group has claimed responsibility for the Christian church attacks.
The wave of explosions -- at least four of them car bombings -- began after 6 p.m. as parishioners gathered inside their neighborhood churches for services. The blasts shattered stained-glass windows and sent church-goers screaming into the streets.
Timing and death tolls
The explosions came just minutes apart and hit four churches in Baghdad -- two in Karada, one in the Dora neighborhood and one in New Baghdad. A fifth church was hit in Mosul, about 220 miles north of the capital. The attacks did not appear to be suicide bombings, U.S. military and Iraqi officials said.
The Baghdad church attacks killed 10 people and injured more than 40 others, according to a U.S. military statement. The Mosul blast killed one person and injured 11 others, police Maj. Fawaz Fanaan said.
The Vatican called the attacks "terrible and worrisome," said spokesman the Rev. Ciro Benedettini.
Muslim clerics condemned the violence and offered condolences to the Christian community.
"This is a cowardly act and targets all Iraqis," Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, spokesman for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Al-Jazeera television.
The attacks on the churches signaled a change in tactics for insurgents, who have focused many previous attacks on U.S. forces, Iraqi officials and police in a drive to push coalition forces from the country, weaken the interim government and hamper reconstruction efforts.
Many Iraqi Christians who remained watched with fear as Islamic fundamentalism, long repressed under Saddam Hussein's fallen regime, thrived. Islamic radicals have warned Christians running liquor stores to shut down their businesses and have turned their sights on fashion stores and beauty salons.
In the Mosul attack, insurgents parked a white Toyota outside a Catholic church, launched a rocket toward the building and then detonated the car bomb about 7 p.m., the U.S. military said in a statement. The attack destroyed five cars and badly damaged a church office, but did little damage to the church itself, the military said.
Other attacks
In Mosul on Sunday, a white sport utility vehicle sped toward barriers at the Summar police station and a police guard opened fire, killing the driver, the police and U.S. military said.
The vehicle crashed into the concrete barriers around the station and exploded, killing five people, including three police officers, said AbdelAzil Hafoudi, an official at al-Salam hospital. He said 53 people were wounded.
Also, a roadside bombing near the town of Samarra hit a passing patrol, killing two U.S. soldiers and wounding one other, the military said.
At least 911 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003.
In central Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed two civilians and wounded two others, said Fawad Allah, an officer at Karada police station. Another roadside bomb, along a southern Baghdad highway, killed one man Sunday and wounded two others, said police Lt. Col. Assad Ibrahim Hameed.
A drive-by shooting north of Baghdad killed three police officers and wounded three others.
Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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