Four blasts hit Christian centres across Baghdad, followed by a car bomb outside a Catholic church in the northern city of Mosul. At least 11 people were killed in the attacks. While the assumption has been that the assault on Iraq’s Christian minority – numbering some 800,000 – was largely focused on stirring generalised unrest, the incident forms part of a trend of attacks against Christians in the country. Many have reported receiving death threats and a large number of refugees have fled across the border to Syria – where conditions are also bleak, with new entrants denied access to jobs and schools.
Suicide car bombs have become the weapon of choice for insurgents – one of the reasons for suspicion falling on foreign militants rather than supporters of the former regime – and a series of such explosions targeted security facilities in early August. On the day of the church attacks, a bomb outside a Mosul police station killed five. Two days later, a similar device exploded at a security checkpoint in the town of Baqubah and a roadside bomb in Baghdad killed two police officers.
Mosul, Iraq’s third biggest city and an ethnic melting pot, has been a hotbed of unrest since the fall of Saddam Hussein and has seen several senior officials assassinated. Fighting broke out again on 4 August between local police and armed insurgents, leaving at least a dozen people dead. Among those killed was a senior member of the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Islam – dispersed from its enclave in the autonomous Kurdish region during the US-led invasion. The reasons behind the violence remain unclear, although a spokesman for the regional government was quoted as saying that a group attempted to attack one of the city’s banks.
Another hallmark of destabilisation efforts has been the taking of foreign hostages. Six captives, four Jordanians and two Turks, were released on 4 August but about 20 foreign nationals remain in captivity. Mindful of the signal sent by the withdrawal of Filipino troops in response to the kidnap of a Philippines national in July, the US State Department issued a statement in early August that all 32 countries in the coalition had agreed not to repeat the climbdown. ‘We are united in our resolve to make no concessions to terrorists,’ it said.
Such events have made the UN, victim of one of the first terrorist attacks after the war, understandably wary of sending personnel back to the country. However, a small team is nowpreparing to return to assist in the political rebuilding process, to be followed by a larger deployment. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told UN Security Council ambassadors on 4 August that UN staff would be protected by a coalition protection force of 5,000 troops. ‘We are forced to rely on the multinational force to give us protection [because] we haven’t had much success attracting governments to sign up to the dedicated [UN] force,’ Annan said. A national conference due to be held at the beginning of August has been postponed at the behest of the new UN envoy to Iraq, Lakhdar Brahimi. The 1,000-strong gathering is designed to select a national assembly with monitoring powers over the interim government.