BAGHDAD, Iraq - In a wave of coordinated attacks aimed at Iraq's tiny Christian minority, a series of bombs exploded yesterday outside five churches thronged with worshipers here and in the northern city of Mosul, killing at least 11 people and injuring dozens more.
It was the first time in Iraq's 15-month insurgency that Christians had been targeted, further fraying the country's delicate religious fabric and raising fears of increased sectarian conflict.
Attackers timed some of the blasts for maximum impact, during evening services that attracted hundreds of faithful. Bloodied and dazed, churchgoers spilled onto streets littered with shards of stained glass and splinters of wood as thick plumes of smoke billowed above them.
"I was praying inside the church with all these people when all the windows shattered," said the Rev. Rafael Kutaimi of the Assyrian Catholic church in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood, where a car packed with explosives blew up during the 6 p.m. service. At least a dozen worshipers were wounded.
"They came into a holy place," Kutaimi said of the attackers, as bystanders scurried away from U.S. armored vehicles that rolled to the scene. "If they're against the Americans, let them kill the Americans. We're all Iraqis, innocent people. I don't know what their goal is."
Within an hour, four churches were hit in three neighborhoods of the Iraqi capital. The Iraqi Ministry of Health said six people died, but witnesses reported at least twice that number.
In perhaps the deadliest incident in Baghdad, twin blasts struck the Chaldean Patriarchate in the south, killing a child and four others just as churchgoers began arriving for Mass around sunset. Witnesses said they saw two men pull up in separate cars, park them near the church, then casually walk away before the vehicles exploded, hurling debris as far as 100 yards.
The church served as a bomb shelter during last year's U.S. invasion, and local residents, Muslims and Christians alike, banded together to protect it from looters.
"We have all lived here in peace for a long time," said Ali Abdulla, 28, who rushed from his house across the street to help the injured.
Around the same time as the Baghdad explosions, at least one car bomb went off outside a church in Mosul, incinerating a passing motorist and wounding four other people. The toll could have been higher if all of the mortar shells stuffed inside the car had detonated, police said.
It was not immediately clear whether any of the bombings were suicide attacks, the most lethal tactic used by insurgents so far. U.S. military officials here said the bombs seemed crudely made, casting doubt on whether fugitive militant leader Abu Musab Zarqawi had masterminded the plan.
Still, the organized assault punctured the sense of relative immunity that many of Iraq's 800,000 Christians had felt, not only during the bloodshed of the past year but stretching back to the reign of Saddam Hussein, who actively cultivated the support of religious minorities as a bulwark against the Shiite Muslim majority. Better educated than many Iraqis, Christians here have traditionally exercised an influence disproportionate to their small numbers. Former Vice President Tarik Aziz, now in U.S. custody, is a Christian who gave his fellow believers a powerful benefactor in Hussein's inner circle.
Many Christian professionals and businesspeople have fled Iraq over the past 30 years for better economic opportunities and to escape periodic outbreaks of hostility against them. In the late 1980s, during a campaign against ethnic Kurds in northern Iraq, Hussein's forces destroyed scores of small Christian villages, demolished ancient monasteries and churches, and forcibly moved Christians to Baghdad.
In addition to yesterday's bombings - which elicited a condemnation from the Vatican - recent weeks have seen a nationwide rise in attacks on liquor and record stores, whose owners are often Christians and whose wares are strictly forbidden by Islamic fundamentalists.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.