Tuesday, November 02, 2010

"They came to kill Iraq"

Church turned into charnel house

BAGHDAD Blood still smeared the walls of Our Lady of Salvation Church on Monday. Scraps of flesh remained between the pews. It was the worst massacre of Iraqi Christians since the war began here in 2003. But for survivors, the tragedy went deeper than the toll of the human wreckage: A fusillade of grenades, bullets and suicide vests had unraveled yet another thread of the country's once eclectic fabric.

"We've lost part of our soul now," said Rudy Khalid, a 16-year-old Christian who lived across the street. He shook his head.

"Our destiny," Khalid said, "no one knows what to say of it."


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To judge from some of the people I've heard over the last couple of days, chattering lightly about a suspect package found at an East Midlands airport, whether it mattered, and who might be behind it, they too, supposedly anti-war people concerned about Iraq and the Middle East, don't know what to say about this more serious atrocity.

But 58 people were killed in a Baghdad church on Sunday, and though they might not weigh heavily in the statistics of slaughter and suffering in Iraq, these too were innocent victims, human beings killed for no reason other than being in "the wrong place" - in this case their place of worship, on their sabbath day, in other word murdered for their religion.

The massacre came after the church was seized, and worshippers held hostage, by a group said to be an affiliate of al-Qaida. The point of the attack reportedly was to demand that prisoners held in Iraq and Egypt should be freed. But the people in the Chaldean Catholic church were not government officials or diplomats. They were just Iraqis , members of a minority whose church has been in Iraq many centuries.

Some of the attackers spoke Arabic with non-Iraqi accents, according to surviving witnesses.

"They came to kill Iraq, not Iraqis," said Bassam Sami, who huddled in a room for four hours before security forces managed to free him. "They came to kill the spirit of Iraq. They came to kill the reason to live, every dream that you want to make true."

As with other hostage situations, there are arguments about whether the rescue method made the killing worse. Last month when British aid worker Linda Norgrove was killed in Afghanistan initial statements said she had been killed by her captors, exploding a body belt, but later reports said her death was caused by US forces throwing a grenade into the cave where she was held.

US forces arrived at the scene of the Baghdad church siege some time before the assault was made, but they deny taking part in the operation.

"On the morning after security forces stormed the Syrian Catholic Church, freeing hostages but leaving far more dead and wounded behind, official accounts contradicted one another's and prompted suggestions they might have inadvertently worsened the carnage. A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said security forces made the decision to storm the church after believing the assailants had begun killing the hostages. Had they not, he said, the toll would have been even worse.

"But one official said that 23 of the hostages were killed when two of the gunmen detonated suicide vests as security forces stormed the church. Another confirmed that account but said that many hostages were killed soon after the gunmen, thought to number between six and 15, seized the building.

Before the gunmen entered, Rafael Qutaimi, a priest, had managed to herd many of the other survivors into a backroom, where they barricaded themselves behind two bookshelves. "Peace be upon you, Mary," some prayed. "God in heaven, help us," others muttered. In time, the gunmen learned they were there. Unable to break in, they hurled four grenades inside through a window, killing four and wounding many more, survivors said.

"Sami was lucky. He escaped from the backroom without any visible wounds. But Monday, he listed his friends who had died the day before. Raghda, John, Rita, the Rev. Wassim, Fadi, George, Nabil and Abu Saba.

"A long list," he said simply. He shook his head, growing angry. Several survivors said that many of the casualties occurred when the gunmen entered and began firing randomly at people, church icons and even windows. They described a ferocity on the part of the gunmen, some of them speaking in dialects from other Arab countries, as though the very sight of the church's interior had enraged them.

"They seemed insane," said Ban Abdullah, a 50-year-old survivor.

What is clear is that the only reason these people were targeted was their religion. Elsewhere in Iraq, mosques have been attacked, and people have been killed or driven from their homes because they were Sunni, or Shia, in the wrong place, or for being Palestinians. This is not a mass movement of sectarian hatreds, but the work of groups of armed men, in this case not even Iraqis. Not only did the Western powers unleash sectarian conflict when they "freed" Iraq, they set about doing their best to encourage it. Remember the British squad caught wearing Arab clothes with a carload of explosives near a mosque in Basra?

But as an Iraqi friend of mine observed, neither the Americans nor Brits have suicide bombers. That
part of the 'conspiracy', if there is one, requires someone else doing their work.

We can see why the British government and media might not want to make a big issue of the church attack. Didn't they tell us that they had brought peace to the country? Iraqi refugees are being sent home, from this and other countries, and London has another Iraqi investment conference shortly. Even the Islamophobes here and in the States, looking for excuses for their own prejudice and hatred, won't get too worked up. Not genuinely. After all, like the people killed or suffering in Faluja or Gaza, the people in the Baghdad church were only Arabs.

But the left and the anti-war movement ought to have something to say, to condemn such attacks, which are nothing to do with the Iraqis or anyone else's liberation struggle, but quite the opposite. If all we can do is bleat on about the hypocrisy of our own rulers, true though that is, we in our own way will end up as useless and bad as they are.

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