BAGHDAD, IRAQ (BosNewsLife) -- Tens of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq where fierce battles raged Tuesday August 17, between American forces and the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a government official confirmed. Displacement and Migration Minister, Pascale Isho Warda, the only Assyrian Christian in the cabinet, said 40,000 Christians had already left Iraq since five church bombings blamed on Islamic militants killed up to 15 people two weeks ago, the French News Agency (AFP) reported.
The number of fleeing Christians was much higher than previously estimated, and more believers were expected to follow amid signs of growing Muslim violence in areas such as the troubled town of Najaf, although the Vatican said late Tuesday, August 17, it was prepared to mediate a halt to the fighting.
But Vatican spokesman Ciro Benedettini told reporters the Holy See was only willing to mediate if requested to do so by both sides in the conflict in what is seen as 'the Shiite holy city' in Iraq.
"The Holy See, obviously, is always disposed to help the parties to talk to each other and have a dialogue, on condition there exists a real will to commit to a peaceful solution to the crisis," he said.
Catholic media reported that the mediation was expected to be directly handled by the Cardinal Secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, who is said to be closely following developments in the conflict. Sodano reportedly told Italian state radio this week that all sides should "respect the holy character of the city. Therefore, the appeal that I make in the name of the pope is that there is a return in any case to honest talks."
News of the Vatican's planned intervention came as an eight-member peace delegation returned to Baghdad empty-handed early Wednesday, August 18, with members of the group that al-Sadr hadn't met with them, a decision that the cleric's aides said was due to the fighting.
Journalists described a scene of clashes between between U.S. troops and the Shiite cleric's militia men who are hold up in a Muslim shrine. An Iraqi photographer working for London-based news agency Reuters was shot in both legs Tuesday, August 17, during battles between Shiite Muslim militia and U.S. forces in the holy city of Najaf.
However in a development expected to raise questions among human rights groups, Police chief General Ghaleb al-Jazairi said earlier he was under orders from the interior minister that all journalists, local and foreign, must leave the area.
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Mohammad Kazem, an Iraqi correspondent for Iranian television, was detained at gunpoint by police in the middle of a live broadcast from a rooftop, AFP said.
Prime Minister Iyad Allawi reiterated his insistence that the militia disarm and quit Najaf for there to be any peaceful solution to the crisis. "The government responds favorably to the demand from the national conference that the Najaf crisis be resolved peacefully," he said in a statement.
In Baghdad, the renewed violence overshadowed however a long-awaited national conference to create a functioning assembly in what was seen as Iraq's first experiment in democracy in decades.
Mortar bombs exploded in the heavily fortified compound around the venue, shaking the building as organizers screamed at participants to get away from the windows, an AFP reporter said. After a speech given by UN envoy Ashraf Jehangir Qazi, dozens of delegates leapt out of their seats, shouting: "As long as there are air strikes and shelling, we can't have a conference."
Since this weekend at least five people were reportedly killed when US forces carried out multiple bombing raids in the flashpoint city of Fallujah, west of Baghdad, after coming under attack by Sunni Muslim insurgents, a doctor and the military said. The US-led coalition meanwhile announced the deaths of three soldiers in 24 hours.
A US soldier was killed in northern Baghdad while a Dutch soldier and a Ukrainian officer were killed in separate incidents south of the capital, AFP said. Iraqi Christians, who are mainly Assyrians, have expressed concern that violence will especially affect them as they are seen by Muslim militants as supporters of the U.S.-led coalition. While some church officials have said there are roughly 2.5 million Assyrian Christians in Iraq, most estimates spoke recently off 750,000 as an increasing number of believers are fleeing to countries such as Syria and Jordan.
By Stefan J. Bos