BAGHDAD, Iraq – Assailants triggered a coordinated series of explosions outside five churches in Baghdad (search) and Mosul (search) during Sunday evening services, killing 11 people and wounding more than 50 in the first major assault on Iraq's Christian minority since the 15-month-old insurgency began.
Separate violence beginning the night before killed 24, including an American soldier, and wounded 101. The toll included a suicide car bombing outside a Mosul police station that killed five people and wounded 53, and clashes in Fallujah between U.S. troops and insurgents that killed 12 Iraqis and wounded 39 others.
The unprecedented attacks against Iraq's 750,000-member Christian minority seemed to confirm community members' fears they might be targeted as suspected collaborators with American forces amid a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism.
"What are the Muslims doing? Does this mean that they want us out?" Brother Louis, a deacon at Our Lady of Salvation, asked as he cried outside the damaged Assyrian Catholic church. "Those people who commit these awful criminal acts have nothing to do with God. They will go to hell."
The wave of explosions — at least four of them car bombings — began after 6 p.m. as parishioners gathered inside their neighborhood churches for services. The blasts shattered stained-glass windows and sent churchgoers running into the streets, screaming and clutching their bleeding heads.
Fire engines and ambulances raced to the scenes of the bombings as black smoke poured into the sky and U.S. attack helicopters circled overhead.
The explosions came just minutes apart and hit four churches in Baghdad — two in Karada, one in the Dora (search) neighborhood and one in New Baghdad. A fifth church was hit in Mosul, about 220 miles north of the capital. The attacks did not appear to be suicide bombings, U.S. military and Iraqi officials said.
"We were in Mass and suddenly we heard a big boom, and I couldn't feel my body anymore. I didn't feel anything," said Marwan Saqiq, who was covered in blood after the attack on Our Lady of Salvation in Baghdad's heavily Christian Karada neighborhood. "I saw people taking me out with the wood and glass shattered everywhere."
Iraqi police discovered a sixth bomb, consisting of 15 mortar rounds, outside a Baghdad church, and authorities disarmed it, the U.S. military said in a statement. The attacks did not appear to be suicide bombings, U.S. military and Iraqi officials said.
The Baghdad attacks killed 10 people and injured more than 40 others, according to a U.S. military statement. The Mosul blast killed one person and injured 11 others, police Maj. Fawaz Fanaan said.
"This (attack) isn't against Muslims or Christians, this is against Iraq," Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi told The Associated Press.
The Vatican called the attacks "terrible and worrisome," said spokesman Rev. Ciro Benedettini.
Muslim clerics condemned the violence and offered condolences to the Christian community.
"This is a cowardly act and targets all Iraqis," Abdul Hadi al-Daraji, spokesman for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told Al-Jazeera television.
Mohammed Fadil al-Samara'i, an official with the Sunni Iraqi Islamic Party, blamed terrorist groups and others "who profit from creating civil disturbances in Iraq."
The attacks on the churches signaled a vast change in tactics for insurgents, who have focused many previous attacks on U.S. forces, Iraqi officials and police in a drive to push coalition forces from the country, weaken the interim government and hamper reconstruction efforts.
To escape the chaos here, many of Iraq's Christians have gone to neighboring Jordan and Syria to wait for the security situation to improve.
Many who remained watched with fear as Islamic fundamentalism, long repressed under Saddam Hussein's fallen regime, thrived. Islamic radicals have warned Christians running liquor stores to shut down their businesses and have turned their sights on fashion stores and beauty salons.
But the church attacks Sunday went far beyond those threats.
The first blast in Karada hit an Armenian church after 6 p.m., just 15 minutes into the evening service, witnesses said. The second blast a few minutes later hit the Roman Catholic church about 500 yards away.
"I saw injured women and children and men, the church's glass shattered everywhere," said Juliette Agob, who was inside the Armenian church during the first explosion.
Firefighters and residents struggled with water hoses to put out the flames consuming cars and the front of the church. Four unexploded artillery shells were visible inside the exploded car.
The back wall of the Catholic church bore the brunt of that bomb. Bricks were scattered about, revealing the graves from a cemetery behind the building. The bomb left a hole 8 feet wide in the ground.
Relatives raced to the area to search for loved ones.
One, Roni George, sat down and wept after failing to find his parents and brothers, who were at Mass.
In the Mosul attack, insurgents parked a white Toyota Supra outside a Catholic church, launched a rocket toward the building and then detonated the car bomb about 7 p.m., the U.S. military said in a statement.
The attack destroyed five cars and badly damaged a church office, but did little damage to the church itself, the military said.
Debris from the exploded car was scattered about the site, with some hanging off a nearby electricity post, said Ghaleb Wadeea, 50-year-old engineer who lives next door.
Earlier in Mosul, a white sport utility vehicle sped toward barriers at the Summar police station at about 8 a.m. and a police guard opened fire, killing the driver, the police and U.S. military said.
The vehicle crashed into the concrete barriers around the station and exploded, killing five people, including three police officers, said AbdelAzil Hafoudi, an official at al-Salam hospital. He said 53 people were wounded, including eight officers.
"We were expecting such terrorist attacks against us," said Abdella Zuheir, a policeman at the scene. "This is a cowardly act."
Also, a roadside bombing near the town of Samarra hit a passing patrol, killing one U.S. soldier and wounding two others, the military said. A second U.S. soldier died of wounds he suffered Sunday in a roadside bombing in Samarra, the military said on Monday.
At least 911 U.S. service members have died since the beginning of military operations in Iraq in March 2003.
In central Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed two civilians and wounded two others, said Fawad Allah, an officer at Karada police station. Another roadside bomb, along a southern Baghdad highway, killed one man Sunday and wounded two others, said police Lt. Col. Assad Ibrahim Hameed.
A drive-by shooting north of Baghdad killed three police officers and wounded three others.
Also Sunday, a Lebanese businessman taken hostage was released, a day after he was snatched by gunmen outside Baghdad, the Lebanese Foreign Ministry said. It was not immediately clear if a ransom was paid for Vladimir Damaa's release. The fate of another Lebanese businessman, Antoine Antoun, abducted at the same time, was not known.
Separately, Sheik Hisham al-Dulaimi, an Iraqi tribal leader mediating with kidnappers holding seven foreign truck drivers, said negotiations to secure the hostages' release had broken down and there no longer was contact with them.
Meanwhile, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said Sunday that any Muslim and Arab forces sent to Iraq must replace coalition troops there.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi has urged Arab and Muslim nations to send troops.