Dozens Killed In Iraq Church Siege

Islamic militants stormed a church in central Baghdad and held about 120 Christians hostage Sunday before security forces stormed the building and freed them. At least 47 people were killed. The militants were demanding the release of female insurgents when security forces stormed the building.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Two stories now from the Middle East, both of which appear linked to branches of al-Qaida. We begin with an attack on a Catholic church in Baghdad yesterday. Gunmen took worshippers hostage. When Iraqi security forces stormed the church, dozens were killed and many more wounded.

NPR's Kelly McEvers is in Iraq to tell us more.

And Kelly, how did this all unfold?

KELLY MCEVERS: Well, some officials are saying this actually was a robbery gone wrong. The attack started when militants ambushed a checkpoint outside the Baghdad stock exchange, and the stock exchange is very close to this church. The militants threw some grenades, killing two security guards. The stock exchange was closed, so once they got inside, the militants then fled into the church.

At first they grabbed a construction crew as hostages, some people who were working on part of the church. But then it turns out there was an evening mass service going on, and they also seized some worshippers.

MONTAGNE: So they're in this church, Our Lady of Salvation church, and the militants, you know, it's not clear why they went there in the first place. But did they begin making demands?

MCEVERS: An organization that monitors militant statements online says the Islamic state of Iraq - that's the group that had carried this attack - put out a statement calling the church a den of idolatry, and demanding that the Coptic Christian Church of Egypt release women who they say were being held captive.

What's still unclear is whether this statement appeared before or during the raid here in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: So how did the seize end? Obviously, quite deadly.

MCEVERS: Yeah. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces surrounding the church, and then stormed in. In the end, several Iraqi forces were killed. At least 30 hostages, including women and children, were killed in the raid. And several militants were killed, and at least eight more were detained.

Witnesses said they saw American troops taking part in the raid. American officials would only confirm to us that they provided aerial surveillance. Under a security agreement between Iraq and the U.S., Americans can only provide such support if they're asked to do so by Iraqi commanders.

But, that said, American Special Forces, who number about 5,000 here in Iraq, have more flexible rules of engagement.

MONTAGNE: Well, if this all started with gunman attacking the stock exchange and then retreating to this church, what does this say about al-Qaida in Iraq?

MCEVERS: It's actually pretty similar to other recent attacks. Unlike those large-scale truck bombings that you saw a year or two ago that, you know, targeted government buildings and international hotels, al-Qaida in Iraq doesn't really seem to have that kind of capability anymore.

Iraqi and American officials both say that's mainly because they don't have the funding or the fighters from outside sources that they used to, or the connections to the larger al-Qaida organization headed by Osama bin Laden.

So what you're seeing now is al-Qaida launching these sort of lower-cost, high-profile attacks. The idea is to make themselves look more dangerous than they actually are, you know, to keep the specter of fear alive.

MONTAGNE: Kelly, thanks very much.

MCEVERS: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Kelly McEvers, speaking to us from Iraq.

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