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Mourners in Kirkuk (AP/Photo by Yahya Ahmed)

Killings in Kirkuk

Iraq | As Christians are attacked in Iraq, officials urge them not to flee

The Muslim governor of Kirkuk joined its leading Christian figure in calling for Christians to remain steadfast following the murder of three believers in the city Sunday evening.

"I call on Christians not to be jarred by these crimes and to stay in Kirkuk. We are sons of this city," said Mustafa Abdulraham at a funeral service led by Louis Sako, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk.

Monday's service honored three Christians killed in attacks that began around 10 p.m. Sunday night, local sources told me. Members of al-Qaida in Iraq are believed to have carried out the attacks, which wounded two others. Gunmen first entered a home where they killed two women, identified as Suzan Latif David and Muna Banna David, in the southern Kirkuk neighborhood of Dorzeen. At a nearby house they shot three men, Yousif Shaba and his sons Basil and Thamir. The gunmen killed Basil, 17. The father and Thamir were in critical condition following the attack but are recovering. All attended the Chaldean Catholic church in Kirkuk where Sako presides.

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Besides crowds of mourners, Christian clergy from across the city as well as government officials attended the service in the ethnically mixed city, which has repeatedly been forced to delay a referendum on whether it will join the Kurdish government to the north or remain part of the Baghdad administration to the south. A U.N. commission has just completed a report on the region, which sits atop most of Iraq's oil reserves. It calls for a negotiated settlement that leaves the province intact. The outcome of the dispute will go a long way toward determining whether Iraq will continue with a strong centralized government in Baghdad once U.S. forces begin their departure. Many believe the attacks are aimed at undoing current negotiations.

Police have arrested nine suspects in connection with the killings. At least one, say local sources, is from Ramadi in Anbar province, where Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida once led some of the most violent episodes of the war. This suspected member of al-Qaida has admitted to police to carrying out a half dozen other terrorist attacks.

The targeted shootings echoed similar incidents last year that triggered the flight of thousands of Christian families from the northern city of Mosul-which, like Kirkuk, is a mix of Arabs, Kurds, Christians, and other minorities. Hoping to avoid such an exodus, Mustafa said, "We will not stand with our hands behind our backs. We will pursue the wicked people who are trying to stir sectarian strife in Kirkuk. I'm asking Christian families not to fall for this ploy."

The attacks are a setback for Mustafa, 57, who told me last fall that Iraqi security forces in the city had improved enough to reduce terrorist attacks 80 percent. One of the largest Iraqi police training academies is located in Kirkuk. A Kurd with wide respect among minorities who grew up in Kirkuk and survived as a young attorney during Saddam Hussein's attempts to ethnically cleanse the city of Kurds, Mustafa has faced terrorists before, surviving three attacks in 2006: a roadside bombing, a car loaded with explosives, and when a suicide bomber on foot approached his car and blew himself up. The car turned out to have armored plating, and Mustafa survived.


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