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  • Violence robs Iraq of Christian heritage:

    The flight of religious minorities escaping violence in post-war Iraq is threatening to rob the country of its once diverse Christian heritage.

    In the early 1980s, Iraq's Christian population numbered 1.4 million but economic strife brought on by the war with Iran and UN sanctions after the 1991 Gulf War pushed some in the ancient community to emigrate.

    Nevertheless, the Christian community continued to enjoy religious freedoms in the majority Muslim country until the US-led invasion of 2003, says Adli Juwaidah, a former director of cultural relations in Iraq's ministry of higher education.

    "The relationship with the [former Baathist] ruling regime was good and it trusted them, but it is important that significantly this was because the Christians did not interfere in politics and did not have political ambition," he told Aljazeera.net.

    But after the fall of Baghdad in April 2003, the Christian community found itself under attack and tens of thousands have since fled the country in fear of religious persecution.

    "The days of officially preached religious tolerance during Saddam's rule are gone and freedom to worship now gives way to fear about an impending Islamisation of Iraq," a United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) study of Iraqi Christians said in 2004.

    On August 2, 2004, more than a dozen Christian worshippers were killed when five Armenian, Assyrian and Chaldean churches came under co-ordinated attacks in the capital Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul.

    Nine other churches were attacked before the end of the year.

    In addition to church bombings, Christian shop owners selling alcohol have been targeted by groups trying to enforce Islamic laws.

    Stores selling music tapes and CDs, mostly owned by Christian merchants, have also been firebombed and their owners told to stop "corrupting Islamic society".

    In 2004, leaflets were left at the homes of Christian families warning the "men of the households" to adhere to Islamic law and ensure that women were dressed "conservatively", which often refers to Islamic attire.

    Young Christian women have reported harassment and intimidation in the streets to don veils or scarves to cover their hair.

    Fayrouz Hancock, an Iraq-Australian computer programmer now living in the US, says Iraqi Christians are fleeing "because of the difficulties of practising their faith and leading normal social lives in a country that has turned conservative due to the threats from extremists".

    She also blames the breakdown in security in the country.

    In early May, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) warned that religiously motivated attacks signalled "an exodus that may mean the end of the presence in Iraq of ancient Christian and other communities that have lived on those same lands for 2,000 years".

    Michael La Civita, assistant secretary for communications for the Pontifical Mission, a Vatican development agency working in the Middle East, says there is no "outright" persecution of the Christian community.

    However, "there is social discrimination of Iraqi Christians. And since the collapse of central authority (beginning with the second US-led invasion), Iraqi Christians have been targeted by extremists", La Civita told Aljazeera.net.

    "As a result, large numbers of Iraqi Christians are leaving Iraq, settling in Jordan, temporarily. Because Middle Eastern Christians are typically middle class, well educated, speak a number of European languages and have family in the diaspora, they find refuge in the West."

    Exact figures of how many Christians have left since the US invasion are hard to come by. The Iraqi government has not issued any figures on the community and many who have left do not register with any refugee or aid organisations.

    "Western sources seem uninterested in writing about their number or situation," says William Warda, an Assyrian researcher and webmaster of Christians of Iraq, a website that monitors news and information on the community.

    "Christians of the Middle East have practised a pacifist form of Christianity and have always strived to live in peace with their neighbours regardless of their religion," he said, adding that the Iraqi Christians are afraid to complain fearing retaliation.

    Soon after the August 2004 church bombings, reports from the Iraq-Syria border indicated 40,000 Iraqi Christians had fled to Damascus and Aleppo, with thousands more crossing into Turkey.

    La Civita says figures from the Holy See indicate less than 300,000 Catholics (Chaldean, Syriac and Armenian Catholics) remain in Iraq.

    NA, a 35-year-old Christian woman in Basra, who agreed to be identified by her initials only, is alarmed by the new Iraq and the militias which roam the streets of her once beautiful city.

    A few weeks ago, as she walked to her church a few blocks from her home, she and a female friend and their children were accosted by two men on a motorbike who shouted anti-Christian slurs.

    "The police were standing there without trying to prevent them from harassing us, I was terrified, not only for myself but for the whole group and especially the little ones," she said.

    The men on the motorbike left once the entourage entered the sanctuary of the church.

    But Basra area churches are also declining in number.

    In previous weeks, two churches closed when their reverends fled for Jordan after receiving death threats.

    "The number of Christian families leaving is growing," NA says.

    "I don't know the exact number, but from around me each month more than 10 families are fleeing, and that's just the families I can see at the Catholic Church."

    While she says she refuses to don the headscarf, she will leave the country at the first chance she gets.

    "I fear for my life because they are killing people without any reason, and making others leave their jobs just because they are Sunni or Shia and the Christians in here are like a very weak old person ... we don't know what to do or where to go," she told Aljazeera.net.

    With Baghdad and other cities unofficially becoming demarcated into sectarian neighbourhoods, Christian families have found themselves particularly vulnerable.

    While the cities of Mosul and Falluja, for example, are considered Sunni safe havens and Karbala and Najaf are Shia safe havens, there are no regions where Christians are a majority and therefore could escape to.

    The result has been that many have left the country entirely.

    Furthermore, Christians do not have the support of militias which many Sunnis and Shia are afforded because of tribal affiliations.

    "At least the Kurds, Shia and the Sunnis [have] well equipped militias to protect them from wholesale attacks against them, and they have allies who will come to their help if there is a civil war," Warda said.

    Friar Yousif Thomas, a Chaldean Catholic in Baghdad, says all-out sectarian conflict means Christians will be caught in the middle.

    "If a civil war is declared between Shia and Sunni, it is comprehensible that Christians cannot defend themselves. The choice of going out is very bitter for the majority of them, but do they have any other choice?" he says.

    Despite the difficulties in practising their faith and threats, an Iraq bereft of Christians is difficult for the community to grasp.

    Christians pre-date Islam by some 700 years and have lived in the area known as Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) since St Thomas the Apostle preached in 30 CE and founded the East Syriac Church.

    "I can't imagine an Iraq without Iraqi Christians, says Hancock.

    "Iraqi Christians contributed to Iraq with their skills and loyalty to the country. It is sad to watch what happened to them for the last three years."

    >>>Source<<<

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    • Iraq's 'ragtag' army units start fighting among themselves:

      A gun battle between two units of the Iraqi army has left one soldier and a civilian dead, underlining how ethnic and sectarian divisions are crippling the US-trained force.

      The shooting, which took place between Kurdish and Shia soldiers on Friday near Duluiyah, 45 miles north of Baghdad, is a bad omen for US plans to hand over security to the Iraqi army by the end of the year.

      The fighting started after a powerful roadside bomb exploded as an Iraqi army convoy carrying Kurdish troops was passing Duluiyah, a small agricultural town that has long been a centre of armed resistance to the occupation. Four soldiers were killed and three wounded in the explosion, according to police, while the US military said one soldier died and 12 were wounded.

      Immediately after the attack the Kurdish soldiers rushed their wounded to the local hospital, firing their weapons to clear the streets and killing one civilian. At this point, going by the police account, another unit of the Iraqi army, the 3rd battalion of the 1st Brigade, this time consisting of Shia troops, rushed to confront the Kurds. They appear to have thought that the Kurds were going to retaliate against the local Arab population. Shots were exchanged, and one Shia soldier was killed.

      The Kurds decided to remove their wounded from Duluiyah hospital, fearing it would not be safe for them to be left there. But as they tried to leave the town, a third unit of the Iraqi army set up a roadblock, preventing them escaping. At this point US troops, who have a giant military base at Balad nearby, intervened and succeeded in ending the confrontation.

      The incident shows the deepening divisions and mistrust within the Iraqi army. Kurdish leaders have told the IoS that in a real civil war, they believe the national army would evaporate immediately, because its units owe their primary allegiance to their own communities. Peter Galbraith, the former US diplomat and expert on Iraq, citing senior Iraqi Ministry of Defence sources, says the Iraqi army consists of 60 Shia battalions, 45 Sunni battalions and nine Kurdish battalions. There is only one mixed battalion. In fact the number of Kurdish troops, formerly known as peshmerga, is understated. Apart from Kurds in the Iraqi army, there are another 60,000 men under arms within the Kurdish region.

      Washington has repeatedly claimed that its aim is to train Iraqi security forces loyal to the central government and capable of fighting the armed resistance to the occupation. This would allow the US and Britain to reduce their forces in Iraq.

      But the Iraqi army has remained a ragtag force. In 2004-05 its entire $1.3bn (£690m) procurement budget was stolen or spent in return for outdated or non-functioning weapons. Its vehicles, often elderly pick-up trucks, are very vulnerable to roadside bombs such as the one which hit the convoy of Kurdish soldiers on Friday. Even the numbers of the army are unclear, because it contains many "ghost" soldiers whose salaries are still drawn by their commanders......

      >>>More<<<

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      • Insurgents down U.S. helicopter, killing 2, 2 U.S. Marines killed in Al-Anbar

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        • Hussein faces the charges alone

          Saddam Hussein has refused to enter a plea at his trial in Baghdad after he was formally charged with ordering the killing and torture of hundreds of Shia villagers.

          The detailed charges read out by Judge Raouf Abdel Rahman stemmed from the killing of 148 Shias after an attempt on Mr Hussein's life in 1982 in the village of Dujail, north of Baghdad.

          The ousted president was accused of ordering the killing and torture of hundreds in the village, including women and children, and of sending helicopters and planes to attack the town.....

          Hussein refuses to enter plea in Baghdad trial

          Hussein: I am still the president

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          • Iraq Sunnis accuse US of "atrocity" over raids:

            Iraq's main Sunni religious grouping accused U.S. forces on Monday of killing 25 civilians in raids near Baghdad in the past two days, rejecting the U.S. account that only suspected insurgents had died.

            "We hold the Iraqi government and the occupiers responsible for this brutal atrocity," the Muslim Clerics Association said in a statement.

            The U.S. military earlier on Monday said its forces had killed more than 41 insurgents in and around the villages of Latifiya and Yusifiya, south of the capital, on Saturday and Sunday. It also said a U.S. helicopter was shot down, killing two soldiers.

            Two separate U.S. statements on the air and ground raids did not mention any civilian deaths, but said several women and children were wounded.

            The U.S. military says al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, uses the area as a staging ground for suicide attacks in Baghdad. It says he aims to incite a sectarian civil war between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis.

            The Sunni association accused U.S. forces of attacking civilian houses and killing people as they tried to flee.

            It said 25 people were killed in Latifiya, 40 km (25 miles) south of Baghdad, on Saturday and Sunday. The U.S. military had said 15 "suspected terrorists" were killed in Latifiya and more than 25 in raids on Sunday in nearby Yusifiya.

            "American and Iraqi forces on Saturday evening carried out a severe air strike in the area of Latifiya against houses with civilians," the statement said.

            It said people ran away from their houses to seek protection but that U.S. forces followed them and killed them.....

            >>>More<<<

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            • Talabani rejects partial Iraq cabinet:

              President Jalal Talabani insisted he would not accept the formation of an "incomplete" cabinet, with the key interior and defence posts still undecided five months to the day since Iraq's landmark elections.

              Attacks across the country killed at least 29 Iraqis, including school teachers and six members of a single family, while the US military announced the deaths of six servicemen on Sunday, two of them killed when their helicopter was shot down south of the capital.

              Eight policemen were killed by Shiite tribesmen near the main southern city of Basra after their leader was slain by attackers reportedly wearing police uniforms, adding to the tensions in British-controlled southern Iraq.....

              >>>More<<<

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              • Insurgents turn bolder in Iraq:

                The U.S. military has quietly acknowledged that insurgents - despite the growth of Iraqi security forces - have grown bolder in their attacks.

                U.S. officers said fighters aligned with Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein have been attacking military bases in the Sunni Triangle. They said the fighters plant bombs near the entrance of major bases and in one case entered a base and conducted a suicide strike.

                "They are bold and getting bolder," U.S. Maj. Mike Jason, adviser to the Iraq Army's 1st Battalion, said......

                >>>Source<<<

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                • The British lose Basra

                  4-page article

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                  • Nineteen people were killed in a shooting and bombing attack at a bus garage in eastern Baghdad on Tuesday, police said.

                    Gunmen shot five Shi'ite militiamen. When a crowd gathered at the scene a car bomb detonated, killing 14 people and wounding 33......

                    Baghdad bombing, shooting attack kills 19: police

                    At least 14 people were killed and 33 others injured when a car bomb ripped through a packed market in Baghdad's Al-Shaab district on Tuesday, an Iraqi interior ministry source said.

                    Several women and children were among the dead in the attack, which targeted a mixed Sunni-Shiite area of the capital.

                    Gunmen fired on the crowd just before the bombing and fled, leaving behind a car which then exploded, the source said.

                    At least 14 killed in Baghdad market bombing

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                    • U.S. forces in Iraq, locked in a war that cannot be won by military force alone, are facing a weapon that tends to favor insurgents - time.

                      The war is in its fourth year and public support is waning. According to opinion polls taken in May, a majority of Americans think that invading Iraq was a mistake and that things in Iraq are going badly. The souring public mood does not bode well for the prospects of prevailing over an insurgency U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has said could last another decade.

                      Military officers and experts involved in drafting a new counterinsurgency manual for the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps say that patience is one of the keys for success in winning against the kind of enemy the U.S. is facing in Iraq.

                      "The (counterinsurgency) effort requires a firm political will and extreme patience," says the draft, now going through revisions and expected to be issued in summer. "The insurgent wins if he does not lose, while the counterinsurgent loses if he does not win. Insurgents are strengthened by the common perception that a few casualties or a few years will cause the United States to abandon (the effort)."

                      Military history shows that past counterinsurgency campaigns in other parts of the world have taken between five and 15 years.....

                      In Iraq war, time is a weapon

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                      • A United Arab Emirates diplomat has been kidnapped in Iraq.

                        Attackers shot a security guard and seized the envoy in Baghdad on Tuesday, police said.

                        Police Lieutenant Thair Mohammed said the diplomat was abducted in the city's al-Mansour district at about 10pm as he was walking from the embassy to his home nearby.

                        He added that a Sudanese security guard, Bedawi Ahmed Ibrahim, was shot by the attackers. Mohammed said he did not know the diplomat's name.

                        The foreign ministry in Abu Dhabi confirmed that one of its diplomats in Baghdad had disappeared, the Emirates state news agency reported.

                        In July 2005, al-Qaeda in Iraq kidnapped and killed two Algerian and one Egyptian diplomat, Ihab al-Sherif, in an apparent campaign to prevent Arab and Islamic countries from strengthening ties with the Iraqi government.

                        Arab nations have since then been hesitant to send ambassadors to Baghdad.

                        Senior envoys from Pakistan and Bahrain have managed to escaped kidnap attempts. More than 40 diplomatic missions are currently in Iraq.

                        Two Moroccan embassy workers, Abderrahim Boualam and employee Abdelkrim el Mouhafidi, disappeared in October 2005 while driving from Jordan.

                        UAE envoy abducted in Iraq

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                        • The neo-conservatives had great expectations of the bonanza that would come from invading Iraq and overthrowing Saddam Hussein: lower oil prices, undermining Iran and Saudi Arabia, and busting OPEC. Today oil prices are at record highs, OPEC still stands, and Iran and Saudi Arabia have more leverage than ever:

                          Iraq's oil: A neo-con dream gone bust

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                          • A college dean and his two bodyguards were shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Baghdad on Tuesday, a police source said.

                            "The dean of Economics and Management College of Baghdad University was shot dead by gunmen in Adhmeyia district in northern Baghdad at around 6:00 p.m. ," the source said on condition of anonymity.

                            "Two of his bodyguards were also killed in the attack and a third was seriously injured," he added....

                            Iraqi college dean, guards shot dead in Baghdad

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                            • Iraq still without a cabinet as MPs to meet:

                              Iraq's parliament is expected to convene with the country's fractious sects nearing agreement on the shape of a long-overdue coalition cabinet against a backdrop of continued violence.

                              Three people were killed in a series of gun and bomb attacks in Baghdad on Wednesday, after a day in which almost 50 people died and a top diplomat from the United Arab Emirates was abducted.

                              Iraq's dominant Shiite bloc had announced it expected a partial cabinet line-up would be unveiled on Wednesday, but without naming the heads of the key interior and defense ministries on whom Iraq's future security will depend.

                              The country's Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds have been squabbling over the formation of a national unity government since December's landmark election for the first permanent parliament of the post- Saddam Hussein era -- leaving a political vacuum that has seen violence soar across the country.

                              And in a sign that politicians had still a way to go before finalising the cabinet line-up, one Shiite party warned it would not take part in the government.

                              "We will not participate in the new government and we will vote against its approval in parliament. This won't change the result of the vote but it's a matter of principle," a spokesman for the Fadhila party told AFP.

                              The party holds only 15 seats in the 275-seat chamber and its vote is unlikely to affect overall results but its stance underscored continued disputes ahead of a May 22 deadline for formation of a government.....

                              >>>More<<<

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                              • Despite (or because of) the analysis at post 712 above:

                                Defence secretary Des Browne has suggested that British forces could begin withdrawing from Iraq within a few months.

                                Speaking on his first visit to the embattled country since becoming defence secretary, Mr Browne dismissed claims that Basra and the rest of the UK's military command in the south of Iraq were unstable as "ridiculous".

                                He explained that an improvement in Iraqi security forces, the appointment of a new prime minister and the irrelevance of a "rise in local inter-tribal violence" meant conditions would soon be approaching the level of stability permitting a partial withdrawal of coalition forces.

                                "The Iraqi security forces continue to increase in proficiency and strength day by day," Mr Browne said.

                                "As progress continues on the political, security and economic fronts, I am confident that over the next few months, the Iraqi security forces will be able to begin to take control of the security of their country in those areas of Iraq where the conditions are right."

                                An official from the Iraqi defence ministry told the Independent earlier today that one person was being "assassinated" in Basra every hour and that police were too afraid to visit murder scenes for fear of being killed themselves.

                                Tony Blair told MPs in prime ministers question time this afternoon that British troops would remain in Iraq "until the job is done".

                                British Defence Secretary signals Iraq withdrawal

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