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Death Toll Rises to 58 in Iraq Church Attack
By John Leland and Anthony Shadid

BAGHDAD -- A day after Iraqi forces stormed a church in Baghdad where gunmen had taken close to 100 hostages, Interior Ministry officials said on Monday that at least 58 people, including two priests, had been killed and 75 wounded in an afternoon of chaos that became a bloodbath. The death toll was considerably higher than initially reported.

Abdul-Kader Jassem al-Obeidi, the defense minister, said that most of the hostages were killed or wounded when the kidnappers set off at least two suicide vests as they took over the church. He defended the decision to storm the building, saying, " This was a successful operation with a minimum of casualties, and killing all the terrorists."

A source at the Interior Ministry said that the police had arrested eight gunmen believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant organization connected to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters.

In a statement posted on a Web site operated by militants late on Sunday, the Islamic State of Iraq took responsibility for the attack, calling the church " the dirty den of idolatry." The posting said its actions had been prompted in part by the behavior of the Coptic Church in Egypt, which it accused of detaining two women who converted to Islam. It added that the fuse of a campaign against Iraqi Christians had been lit.

Hussain Nahidh, a police officer who saw the interior of the church, said: "It' s a horrible scene. More than 50 people were killed. The suicide vests were filled with ball bearings to kill as many people as possible."

" Many people went to the hospitals without legs and hands," he said.

At the church on Monday, federal police blocked the entrances and kept onlookers from going inside. They said blood still smeared the floors, and pieces of flesh had yet to be removed. Knots of worshipers, among them survivors, stood along the street, some of them crying. Others were dazed, finding it difficult to talk.

Many lamented that the killings might force more Christians to leave Iraq, further shrinking an already dwindling community.

" There' s no future for us here," said Stephen Karomi, a 24-year-old Christian from the northern town of Karakosh. "Everything is really foggy."

Many of the survivors said the assailants killed most of the victims when they first stormed the church. Most of those who survived had sought shelter in a room at the front of the church barricaded by bookshelves, which the assailants were unable to enter.

An American official, speaking on customary condition of anonymity, said security forces decided to storm the church after they believed that the assailants had begun killing hostages.

Had they not entered, he said, the toll would have been worse. "Our information was the hostage takers had begun to systematically execute hostages," he said.

The Interior Ministry officials did not break down the casualties between security forces and hostages.

The violence began shortly after 5 p.m. on Sunday. The gunmen first attacked the Baghdad stock exchange in the Karada neighborhood, killing two security guards and wounding four others, setting off two bombs and then taking refuge in the nearby Sayidat al-Nejat church. It was unclear whether the attackers' main target was the stock market or the church, or whether they planned to attack both.

The church -- one of six bombed in August 2004 -- was filled for Sunday services. A local television channel, Baghdadiya, reported receiving a telephone call from someone claiming to be one of the attackers and demanding the release of all members of Al Qaeda imprisoned in Arab countries.

Karada is an area dotted with federal police checkpoints, local police patrols and political parties with security details, as well as security guards attached to the stock market and the church. Mr. Obeidi, the defense minister, said, "It seems like there was negligence by the security forces, which we will investigate later."

The attack came two days after a suicide attack at a cafe in Diyala Province killed 21 people, the worst assault in more than a month.

Members of Iraq' s four political blocs are planning to meet in the heavily fortified Green Zone to try to break the impasse that has left Iraq without a new government nearly eight months after the national election.

Major acts of violence have not proliferated during the political deadlock, as many have feared, but smaller, focused attacks have been commonplace, stirring fears of a return to high levels of bloodshed.

The Iraqi antiterrorist unit, known as the Golden Force, which has been criticized for not being able to stop attacks, moved quickly to end the siege. Its forces swarmed the church by helicopter and launched grenades and smoke grenades, but were rebuffed by the terrorists.

Security officers then stormed the church from the ground, breaking through the gates.

Spokesmen from the police and the Interior Ministry would not give details of the final assault on the church, or say how many kidnappers were involved.

The church, with a huge cross visible from hundreds of yards away, was already surrounded with concrete bollards and razor wire, and church leaders have been fearful of attack since the Rev. Terry Jones in Gainesville, Fla., threatened to burn a Koran on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mr. Jones decided not to burn the Koran.


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