Iraq probes church raid; says attackers disguised

By Waleed Ibrahim

BAGHDAD (BestGrowthStock) -Iraq launched an investigation on Tuesday into a church raid in which 52 hostages and police were killed, trying to find out how al Qaeda-linked gunmen managed to storm the building despite checkpoints, an official said.

Sunday’s attack was the bloodiest against Iraq’s Christian minority since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and drove fear deep into the hearts of many Iraqi Christians who had so far resisted the urge to flee their war-torn country.

Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said the assailants were disguised as guards working for a private security firm and carried fake ids.

“We have formed an investigation to uncover details of the attack and if we discover anyone has been negligent or complicit, he will be held strictly accountable,” Moussawi said.

“We have many question marks about how such a large number of terrorists managed to reach the church in the heart of Baghdad,” he said.

Defense Minister Abdel Qader Jassim said the authorities ordered the detention of the police commander in charge of the district where the church attack took place for questioning, a standard procedure after high-profile attacks.

Gunmen tied to an Iraqi al Qaeda offshoot seized hostages at the Our Lady of Salvation Church, a Syrian Catholic cathedral, during Sunday mass, demanding the release of women they said had converted to Islam but were being detained by the Coptic church in Egypt. Early reports said they also sought the release of al Qaeda prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.

The attack, which lasted several hours, ended when security forces raided the church to free more than 100 Iraqi Catholics.

The siege was far from being one of the bloodiest incidents in the 7-1/2 years of sectarian warfare and insurgency unleashed after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and in which tens of thousands of Iraqis died, the vast majority Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims.

But it has provoked a worldwide outburst of anguish and cast a spotlight on Iraq’s fragile stability as the sectarian bloodshed recedes and U.S. forces scale down their presence ahead of a full withdrawal next year.

Iraq is still waiting for politicians to agree on a new government almost eight months after an inconclusive election, creating a political vacuum that Sunni Islamist insurgents have sought to exploit through devastating assaults.

Some security officials said most of Sunday’s casualties occurred during the raid, either when assailants wearing suicide vests blew themselves up or threw grenades, or in the ensuing gunfight. Other reports on Tuesday said the gunmen might have started to kill the hostages en masse before the police raid.

Communications authorities ordered the closure of an Iraqi TV channel, al-Baghdadiya, that they accused of broadcasting a report about the rescue mission before it began.

The Communications and Media Commission said the report might have “pushed the attackers into speeding up their plans to kill their hostages and blow up the church, forcing the security forces to storm the church …”

PROFESSIONAL

Moussawi said investigations so far had shown the attackers, who he said were 10 in number and included five suicide bombers, were well prepared. Five were arrested.

“The terrorists were professional. They were carrying fake identity cards and also fake official letters, and they were wearing the uniforms of private security guards,” Moussawi said.

Reports on the final death toll were confusing on Tuesday.

Deputy Health Minister Khamis al-Saad said 34 people were killed and 77 wounded. The defense minister said 34 civilians and 9 security force members died.

A deputy interior minister said on Monday that 52 police and hostages had died.

The conflicting numbers provided by the health ministry could be a result of a delay in hospitals sending through paperwork on the death certificates they had issued.

“Nowhere is safe anymore, not even the House of God,” the auxiliary Bishop of Baghdad of the Chaldeans, Shlemon Warduni, told Vatican Radio.

“This attack will have a very negative influence on those who until now had chosen to remain in Baghdad, with many saying they are ready to leave.”

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Aseel Kami and Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad, Tom Heneghan in Paris; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Michael Christie)

Iraq probes church raid; says attackers disguised