Baghdad -- At least 10 Christian worshippers were killed and about thirty wounded tonight, when Iraqi security forces stormed a Baghdad church in which terrorists wearing explosive vests were holding them hostage.
The raid also killed seven Iraqi soldiers and police officers. The violence erupted just after 9pm, almost four hours after a group of between six and eight gunmen wearing military uniforms stormed Our Lady of Salvation Chaldean Catholic church in the inner-city suburb of Karrada.
Worshippers caught up in the carnage described their ordeal to the Guardian as they fled the church. They said the terrorist attack was heralded by a car bomb outside the fortified church gate at 5:30pm. The two priests, who were about to begin mass ushered at least half of their 120-strong congregation to a small room in the back of the ornate building, in a bid to protect them.
"After a while one of the terrorists opened the door and threw in a bomb," said a man who identified himself as Bassam. "There were injuries. They killed people, they injured people," he said, before collapsing on the road outside the church. "Where is our father?" he screamed," referring to his priest. "Where is our father?"
For the next four hours, the terrified congregation cowered inside the room. The streets of central Karrada were shut down and darkened, with only flares from circling helicopters illuminating a pitch black sky. As the Iraqi forces closed in, militants inside the church threw sound grenades and detonated several larger bombs.
Local television station, Al-Baghdadia reported that one of the gunmen had called the network in the early stages of the seige, identifying himself as a member of an al-Qaida-aligned group, the Islamic State of Iraq. He demanded the release of prisoners in Iraq and Egypt.
The station said the caller spoke in classical Arabic, in what was seen as an attempt to disguise an accent that was identifiably non-Iraqi.
A three-vehicle American patrol arrived at the scene around 8:30pm. About eight US soldiers -- now a rarity on the streets of Baghdad -- joined Iraqi counter-terrorism units outside the church walls.
"This won't take long," said an Iraqi army captain at the scene. "It will be over in half an hour."
Ferocious gunfire heralded the raid -- almost on the captain's cue -- followed by three loud booms, which security officials at the scene said were caused by terrorists detonating explosives strapped to their body as troops advanced.
A second burst of shooting followed the crack of sniper rounds from nearby rooftops. Eerie silence lasting around 5 minutes then followed, before a soldier called frantically for an ambulance -- a fleet of which had been kept waiting about 500 metres away.
For the next forty minutes, a cacophony of screeching ambulances carried away the dead and injured. Walking wounded and survivors without injuries stumbled past them through the mayhem.
Among them were two elderly ladies in their blood-stained Sunday best, several children trembling too much to walk and a traumatised elderly couple searching in vain for their priest.
The priest they call Father Rafael is believed to have survived, but his colleague, Father Wissam, is believed to have been killed.
Bewildered and frantic, the survivors collapsed onto a median strip crying for telephones to call their families.
"I am going to leave Iraq with my family tomorrow," said Bassam, an employee of an internet company. "Why am I here?" he wailed. "Look at this -- this is Iraq."