DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- More than 1,500 members of an Iraqi Christian group have gone to northern Iraq to try to protect Christians following attacks on churches in Baghdad and Mosul, the leader of the group said in Syria on Saturday.
In an interview, Yonadem Kana, the leader of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Iraq and a member of the Iraqi National Council, said the fighters have been deployed near the northern city of Mosul.
"We do not want to transform our movement into a militia," he said. "But if needed, we can arm more than 10,000 people."
Christians make up just three per cent of Iraq's population of about 25 million. The major Christian groups include Chaldean-Assyrians, who make up Kana's group, and Armenians.
On Oct. 16, bomb attacks targeted five churches in Baghdad - which damaged buildings but caused no casualties.
Officials estimate that as many as 15,000 of Iraq's nearly one million Christians have left the country since August, when four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul were attacked in a co-ordinated series of car bombings. The attacks killed 12 people and injured 61 others. Another church was bombed in Baghdad in September.
Islamic militants have told Christian owners of liquor stores to close down their businesses, and they have threatened Christians who run beauty salons and shops selling fashionable clothes.
Kana, who is on a three-day visit to Syria for talks on Iraq's security, said his movement will not station fighters in other Iraqi cities. In Baghdad, he said, "we have the cover of law and Iraqi regular army and security forces."
Kana said his movement does not need to be protected by U.S.-led coalition forces.
"We will not accept that our people's ethnic and religious background be used as a card in the hands of foreign forces to interfere in Iraq and to prolong the occupation," Kana said.
He said he will attend a meeting in Jordan on Monday to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq ahead of the Jan. 30 elections. Delegates from 18 Iraqi factions and United Nations experts will attend.