Grieving Catholics in Baghdad marked All Saints Day Monday in mourning for 46 Christians killed during a hostage drama with Al-Qaeda gunmen that ended in an assault by Iraqi forces backed by US troops.
Mourners throughout Monday were seen carrying coffins containing bodies of the dead from out of the church and loading them onto vehicles for transfer to the morgue. Most of the victims were to be buried on Tuesday.
The rescue drama on Sunday night, two months after US forces formally concluded combat operations in Iraq, ended with two priests among at least 46 slain worshippers.
"It was carnage," said Monsignor Pius Kasha, whose Syriac Catholic church was targeted by the militants, whom witnesses said were all armed with automatic rifles and suicide belts.
"There were less than 80 people inside the church, and only 10 to 12 escaped unhurt," he said, giving an account that differed from the official Iraqi version. He said two priests were killed, and 25 worshippers were wounded, among them a priest who was shot in the kidney.
An interior ministry official, in an updated toll, said there had been more than 100 worshippers in the church and that 46 had been killed and 60 wounded. He said seven security members also had died, adding that five attackers were killed.
A witness said that immediately on entering the Sayidat al-Nejat Syriac Christian cathedral during evening mass, the gunmen shot dead a priest while worshippers huddled in fear.
"They entered the church with their weapons, wearing military uniforms. They came into the prayer hall, and immediately killed the priest," said one of the freed hostages, an 18-year-old man who declined to give his name.
"We heard a lot of gunfire and explosions, and some people were hurt from falling windows, doors and debris."
Iraqi officials had said that at least one of the gunmen who raided the cathedral had blown himself up with a suicide belt as police made a first attempt to enter. Witnesses said the militants had began to fire their weapons as soon as they entered the church.
Traces of Flesh, blood, bullet marks and shattered glass littered the cathedral, said an AFP journalist who went to the scene in Baghdad's central Karrada district Monday.
"It resembles a battlefield," he said.
US soldiers dressed in combat gear also took part in the assault, some of the witnesses said.
"I was freed by Americans, they came first and the Iraqis came after," said an 18-year-old man outside the church, shortly after drama ended.
Another freed hostage said the same, and an AFP reporter saw American soldiers in assault gear at the scene.
But Sameer al-Shuaili, spokesman of Iraq's anti-terror unit, said that no Americans were involved.
"The (Iraqi) anti-terror forces are the only forces who raided the church, there were no Americans at all," he said.
The US military said it had "advisers" near the scene, but that US soldiers were not involved in the assault.
"There were no US soldiers involved in the assault to free the hostages," said Colonel Barry Johnson, a US military spokesman in Iraq.
The Chaldean bishop of Baghdad, Bishop Shlimoune Wardouni, said that the gunmen were demanding the release of detainees held in Iraq and Egypt.
The SITE monitoring group said Monday that the Islamic State of Iraq, the local branch of Al-Qaeda, had claimed the Baghdad attack, saying its fighters had captured the Christians and also gave the Coptic church in Egypt a 48-hour deadline to release women it said were being held captive by the Christians.
SITE said the threat comes amid calls by jihadists and Al-Qaeda's media arm for Muslims to take action against the Egyptian Coptic church over the alleged imprisonment of two women, both wives of Coptic priests.
Egypt refused on Monday to react to the demands.
"Egypt categorically rejects having its name or affairs pushed into such criminal acts," the foreign ministry said in a statement issued in Cairo. It also "strongly condemned" the attack on the Baghdad church.
The Vatican, Italy and France also condemned the hostage-taking in Baghdad, with Pope Benedict XVI on Monday branding the attack as "absurd and ferocious violence" against Christians in Iraq.
Around 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq in 2003 but their number has since shrunk to 550,000 as members of the community have fled abroad, according to Christian leaders.
Iraqi Christians have frequently been the target of violence, including murder and abductions. Hundreds have been killed and several churches attacked since the US-led invasion to oust Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Violence has abated in Iraq since its peak in 2006-2007, but deadly bombings, gunfights and kidnappings are still routine.
By Khalil Murshadi