Iraqi Christians, Shiites Fight Amid Coinciding Religious Observances

A handful of Iraqi Christians and Shiite Muslims got into a dispute Friday over decorations in a northern Iraqi town during their coinciding religious observances, officials said.

Iraqi troops were deployed and a curfew was imposed in the town after three guards at a Christian church were injured during the scuffle, reflecting how concerned the government is about keeping the peace during Christmas and Ashoura, a revered Shiite annual mourning period.

Friday's confrontation in Bartela, 240 miles northwest of Baghdad, comes as thousands of Christians in Iraq tamped down celebrations to avoid offending Shiites, who are making pilgrimages to the southern holy city of Karbala to commemorate the 7th Century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein.

The scuffle began after guards at a Christian church, which was preparing for Christmas Mass, pulled down black flags hung to mark the Shiite mourning period of Ashoura, a police official said. The guards were slightly injured, he added.

After the incident, a curfew was put in place — closing stores and restaurants, the official said.

The provincial governor and police officials met with leaders of both groups shortly after the scuffle, according to a statement released by the governor's office.

"Those involved must be held accountable and must be brought to justice. They must be outsiders who wanted to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims, especially in this time," the governor's media office said.

The incident came a day after Shiite pilgrims were targeted in a handful of bombing attacks that left dozens dead. In the worst of those attacks, police on Friday raised the toll to 19 killed and 80 wounded in a double bombing in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

Thousands of Shiites are marching to the southern holy city of Karbala to observe Ashoura, the date commemorating the death of Imam Hussein in a 680 A.D. battle. His death sealed the split between Shiites and Sunnis.