By Ernesto Londoño and Aziz Alwan Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 1, 2010; 10:33 AM
BAGHDAD - Scores of worshipers and seven Iraqi commandos were killed Sunday night during an hours-long siege of a prominent Catholic church in Baghdad, authorities and church officials said.
The bulk of the bloodletting happened shortly after 9 p.m. when Iraqi Special Operations troops stormed Our Lady of Salvation church in the upscale Karradah neighborhood to try and free worshipers who had been taken hostage. Several of the hostages had already been killed by the assailants who had taken over the church, authorities said. The attempted rescue prompted to detonate suicide vests, multiplying the death toll.
Two Assyrian priests who were presiding over Sunday evening Mass were among those slain during the hours-long encounter. One priest was executed and the other was reportedly killed in an explosion, fellow priest Meyassr Portus said.
"People come here just to pray," Portus said Monday, weeping outside the church as residents swept broken glass off the street and repair crews fixed windows and mangled electrical wires. "They are trying to destroy humanity here. Christians just want to live in peace."
In all, 51 worshipers were killed, including at least eight women and five children, Iraqi authorities said. Nearly 60 people were wounded in the exchange of gunfire and the blasts inside the church.
Iraqi police officials said five of the attackers were slain and eight were taken into custody. The U.S. military called the takeover a success.
"Last night's operation by the [Iraqi security forces] is proof of their competency to provide professional security to the citizens of Iraq," the military said in a statement.
The Iraqi forces at the scene, advised by a small number of American troops, decided to storm the church after learning that some hostages had been executed during the early phase of the siege, a U.S. official briefed on the investigation said.
"They responded out of necessity," the American official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the early assessment of the Iraqi response. "There was a real possibility that they would have killed all the hostages inside."
Witnesses said at least one suicide bomber detonated explosives in the early minutes of the attack, which began around 5:30 p.m., the time the religious service was to begin.
Witnesses and security forces on Monday provided the following account:
A team of insurgents drove up to the back side of the church in a gray SUV. They tossed bags across a seven-foot wall that surrounds the church, and then scaled the wall.
Guards at a nearby branch of the Baghdad stock exchange shot at the assailants, drawing them into a gun battle that resulted in the death of two of the guards.
Once inside the church compound, the assailants detonated explosives packed inside the vehicle. They then used either a grenade or a suicide vest to ram open a back door.
Inside the church, Rev. Wassim Sabeeh and Rev. Thaer Abdullah ushered some parishioners into a small, fortified back room. Only a fraction of the 120 worshipers fit inside. Soon after the shooting began, the priests and many of the worshipers came face-to-face with the heavily armed assailants.
One of the attackers reportedly made a phone call to Baghdadiyah television station and said the group was demanding the release of al-Qaeda in Iraq members imprisoned in Egypt and Iraq. He reportedly spoke Arabic, but did not have an Iraqi accent--suggesting he was from another country. Iraqi police did not provide details about any of the assailants' nationalities.
The Islamic State of Iraq, a front for the Sunni extremist organization, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement posted on the Internet on Monday. It said the attack on a "den of polytheism" was meant to pressure the Egyptian government to release women linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq who were being held in Egypt. It was not immediately clear which women the statement was referring to.
The mayhem underscored how dangerous the Iraqi capital remains as a deepening political crisis continues. Iraqi lawmakers are still at an impasse over who is entitled to lead the next government after the March 7 parliamentary election. Many Iraqis fear the impasse could sow instability and violence as the U.S. military mission here winds down.
Members of the Assyrian church stood outside Monday morning and wept as they stared at the building's blood-streaked walls. Most of the church's windows were shattered, as were plaques from graves in the church's outer patio.
"We have nothing left here," Juloud Peshtu said as she stood outside. "We are the minority. We cannot defend ourselves. We cannot stay in this country anymore."
Amjed Majeed, who lives across the street from the church, watched as senior Iraqi government officials, trailed by heavily armed men, walked in and out of the church.
"No one came here to ask us how we're doing," he said angrily, standing outside his now windowless two-story house. "No one asked how are children are doing. No one came to offer us compensation."