SULEMANIYAH, IRAQ // Fears of a revival of al Qa'eda swept Iraq yesterday after 52 hostages and police officers died when government troops stormed a church seized by militants.
Gunmen wearing suicide vests blasted their way into Our Lady of Salvation church, one of Baghdad's main places of worship for Syriac Catholics, and held about 100 members of the congregation hostage for four hours.
The siege on Sunday evening ended when Iraqi anti-terrorist units, backed by US forces, staged a raid in which up to eight militants died. Iraqi security sources said the rescue was extremely difficult; gunmen hid among hostages, including women and children, detonating explosive vests and throwing grenades.
Lt Gen Hussein Kamal, a senior ministry of interior official, said that in addition to the 52 killed, 67 were wounded, many seriously.
Two priests were believed to be among the dead, at least one of them executed when gunmen entered the church sanctuary during evening Mass.
One witness, Amar Yasser, who works at the nearby Iraqi stock exchange, said: "It was horrific. We could hear explosions and gunfire and then they were just bringing out dozens of bodies and maimed people, people missing hands or arms or legs, and loading them into ambulances."
Before taking over the church, the attackers had shot and killed two guards outside the stock exchange headquarters.
Mr Yasser said he saw the corpses of three of his neighbours, all from the same family, being moved out of the church by the emergency services.
"It was such a savage attack," Mr Yasser, a Christian, said. "Al Qa'eda seems to be more serious than ever before about killing the Christians here."
There have been conflicting reports of the number of gunmen involved in the siege, and whether they were killed or captured. Major Gen Qassim al Moussawi, a spokesman for the Iraqi military in Baghdad, said eight militants had been killed, while the US military put the number of dead at between five and seven.
Police officers at the scene were reported to have said three attackers were dead and seven arrested.
Responsibility for the attack was claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq, the local al Qa'eda affiliate, which posted a statement on the internet vowing to "exterminate" Iraqi Christians.
Al Qa'eda had previously threatened to take hostages unless its members and their wives and children were freed from Iraqi jails.
However, the internet statement specifically linked Sunday's attack to the case of two women in Egypt who, al Qa'eda said, had converted to Islam and had since been kept prisoners by their husbands, both priests in the Coptic church.
"We direct our speech to the Vatican and say that as you met with Christians of the Mideast a few days ago to support them and back them, now you have to pressure them to release our sisters, otherwise death will reach you all," the al Qa'eda message said.
An Iraqi security official in the northern city of Kirkuk said al Qa'eda-influenced extremists in Iraq appeared to be resorting more to hostage-taking.
"We have a situation here at the moment with two girls who were kidnapped by al Qa'eda," he said. "They want to swap them for women prisoners. To be honest, it is impossible to stop al Qa'eda taking hostages if that is what they decide they are going to do.
"We are struggling to face this problem. It's the same in all of Iraq, not just Kirkuk, and we expect al Qa'eda to make more attacks of this type."
In Baghdad, Christian leaders said the church assault showed the inability of army and police units to safeguard the population, particularly minority religious and ethnic communities.
"Churches are easy targets for al Qa'eda," Yunadam Kanna, head of the Assyrian Democratic movement, a Christian political party, said. "In Baghdad and in Mosul, where there are Christian populations, people do not feel safe. There have been so many attacks, so many problems. This is not the first."
He criticised the security forces for failing to protect the area. Our Lady of Salvation church is in a part of the city dotted with checkpoints and defensive positions, although the building itself is lightly guarded.
"The arrangement of security near the church is not professional and not strong enough to stop such attacks," he said. "Iraqi citizens and minorities do not trust the security forces to keep them safe."
Mr Kanna also suggested the rescue operation may have been botched, something denied by the government. Iraq's defence minister described it as "quick and successful".
Iraq's Christians and other minority groups, including Shabaks and Yezidis, have been targeted heavily by militants since the 2003 US-led invasion. Many have already fled the country and this latest attack in the heart of Baghdad seems likely to result in a renewed exodus.
"I've not felt safe here for a long time but this has made me certain that now is the time to leave, this city and this country," said Mr Yasser, the Christian who works at the stock exchange. "It was too much to see this. Enough is enough."