BAGHDAD – Cars and trucks loaded with suitcases, mattresses and passengers cradling baskets stuffed with clothes lined up at checkpoints Monday to flee Mosul, a day after the 10th killing of an Iraqi Christian in the northern city so far this month.
Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but local leaders have blamed al-Qaida in Iraq, which maintains influence in the region despite an ongoing U.S.-Iraqi military operation launched in May.
The latest victim was a music store owner who was gunned down Sunday evening at work in an attack that left his teenage nephew wounded, according to police and a neighbor.
Farques Batool, in his 50s, had refused to join other Christians fleeing the city because he needed to care for his wife, a daughter, his mother and the family of his dead brother, his neighbor Raid Bahnam said.
Batool's family finally fled Mosul after his death, leaving his wounded nephew in the hospital.
With the killing of at least 10 Christians this month alone, according to police, thousands have abandoned their homes in Mosul to seek refuge in churches and with relatives in neighboring villages or in relatively safe Kurdish-controlled areas nearby.
Faraj Ibraham, a 54-year-old power station employee who moved in with relatives in the village of Burtulla, said he was worried about his two daughters who had to leave school.
"We left in a hurry and they forgot to bring even their books. It will be a heavy burden for them even if we get to return home soon," he said.
Islamic extremists have frequently targeted Christians and other religious minorities since the 2003 U.S. invasion, forcing tens of thousands to flee Iraq — although attacks slowed with a nationwide decline in violence.
The reason for the latest surge in attacks was unclear. But it coincides with strong lobbying by Christian leaders for parliament to restore a quota system to give religious minorities seats on provincial councils that will be chosen by voters before the end of January.
U.N. special representative Staffan de Mistura strongly condemned "the spike in violence that has targeted the Christian communities in recent days" and warned the attacks were seeking to "fuel tensions and exacerbate instability at a critical time."
Religious leaders called for action.
Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako of the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk denounced "a campaign of liquidation and violence, with political objectives."
Another churchman, Monsignor Shiemon Warduni, appealed to "all the brother Muslims in Mosul, Baghdad and in Iraq" to do everything possible to end "this painful campaign," according to Vatican Radio.
Local organizations, meanwhile, appealed for help as they faced a flood of internal refugees.
"Thousands of people fled virtually overnight, many with only the clothes on their back," said Jamil Abdul-Ahad, the head of an interfaith Christian council in Mosul that has been distributing blankets and food aid to the internal refugees.
Iraq's government sent police reinforcements, and patrols were stepped up in Christian communities.
For many Christians, this was not enough.
"Our situation needs active work, not just media propaganda from government officials," Abdul-Ahad said. "The government should protect Christians in Mosul and safeguard their rights."
The governor of Ninevah province, which includes Mosul, said Christians began fleeing in force last week after seven Christians were reported killed.
"Fear spread because of threats from al-Qaida and 'Takfiris' (Sunni extremists) toward Christians and the assassinations of some of them," Gov. Duraid Mohammed Kashmoula said.
Bashar Jirjis Habash, the secretary of the committee for Christian affairs in the nearby town of Qaraqosh, said some families began arriving there after receiving threats in early September as the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan got under way.
There were conflicting reports on the number of Christians who have fled the city, although local officials said there were fewer leaving on Monday.
The International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental humanitarian group based in Switzerland, estimated that at least 829 families had been displaced and said Iraqi officials were asking for tents and plastic sheeting for possible camps to house them all.
One senior government official in Mosul, Jawdat Ismaeel, said the latest figures show that 1,092 families, or some 4,400 people, have fled the city.
The ongoing military operation in Mosul began in May after the Iraqi army proved itself in sharp fighting against Shiite extremists in the southern city of Basra.
In an interview published Monday by The Times of London, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Iraqi forces had performed so well in Basra that the 4,100 British troops in southern Iraq were no longer needed to provide security, although some should stay to help in training.
"Definitely, the presence of this number of British soldiers is no longer necessary. We thank them for the role they have played, but I think that their stay is not necessary for maintaining security and control," al-Maliki said.
In London, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense agreed that Britain's military role was shifting from fighting to training and that al-Maliki had "acknowledged this important mentoring and training role."