FEATURE-Iraq's Christians "sacrificial lambs" as attacks mount
(Corrects paragraph 20 to make clear population refers to province not just Mosul city)
By Missy Ryan
AL-QOSH, Iraq (Reuters) - A Christian family huddles in an austere room in a monastery in northern Iraq, their belongings piled up around them. It is now home, since members of their religious minority became targets of sectarian attacks.
The father, an engineer who was so scared that he asked to keep his name and that of his family unidentified, rushed his wife and two daughters to the Chaldean Catholic al-Saida monastery at the foot of arid mountains in northern Iraq on Oct. 9, a day after hearing that four fellow Christians were killed.
"The explosions continue. There is no safety," he says with his youngest daughter draped on his lap.
Such is the plight of some 1,500 Christian families who in the past two weeks have fled homes in Iraq's ethnically mixed, and stubbornly violent, city of Mosul.
U.S., U.N. and Iraqi officials have condemned the attacks, which some in Iraq believe could foreshadow renewed bloodshed even as violence drops sharply across the country.
The exodus of close to half of Mosul's Christians shows the fragility of security gains, especially in areas where cultures, religions and ethnicities collide. It also raises the spectre of violence ahead of provincial elections that could alter the power balance in strategic cities like Mosul.
So far, no one has taken responsibility for the deaths of about 12 Christians this month, which were followed by death threats and property attacks that prompted thousands to flee.
Christians whisper that they are targets of a systematic campaign against them. Some blame Islamic militants, while others quietly point a finger at Mosul's politically powerful Kurdish minority. Most are too frightened to go into details.
It is not the first time that members of Iraq's Christian community, who number in the hundreds of thousands, have fallen prey to the bloodshed that has convulsed Iraq since 2003.
Earlier this year, Mosul's ageing Chaldean Archbishop, Paulos Faraj Rahho, was kidnapped. His body was found two weeks later despite pleas from Pope Benedict for his release.
During a visit on Saturday to the al-Saida monastery, where more than 60 Christian families from Mosul have taken refuge, U.S. Brigadier General Tony Thomas, commander in the province, asked church leaders who they believed was behind the attacks.
"I will give you a guarantee: I will crush them. I will crush whoever it is," the American general said.
The priests refused to assign outright blame.
"I am not a politician. I don't know what the political agenda is," said Father Gabriele Tooma, a Chaldean superior in al-Qosh. "We don't want to be the sacrificial lambs. We don't want to be fuel for these politicians' games."
Another priest, who asked not to be named, blamed the authorities for failing to protect the victims. "If my house is robbed and I have guards, who is the first person I will ask about the theft?" he asked Thomas.
Senior U.S. military officials have said Sunni Muslim al Qaeda or similar Islamist groups are behind the attacks.
U.S. commanders say Mosul is the last big city in Iraq that still has a large al Qaeda presence. U.S. intelligence describes at least 12 insurgent organizations believed to be active in the area, from ideological groups such as al Qaeda to neo-Baathists.
The attackers' goal is "to de-legitimize the government here", said Thomas. "The enemy we are fighting here is searching the social fabric here ... to cause that fabric to rupture."
DISAFFECTED ARABS, MINORITY GOVERNMENT
But other U.S. officials are less certain whom to blame, and describe a host of potentially destabilizing forces at play in a tense region ruled by a weak, minority provincial government.
About 60 percent of the 2.8 million population of the province of which Mosul is the capital are Sunni Arabs, and about a quarter are Kurds. The army around Mosul is mainly Kurdish, which angers many of the city's Arabs.
Seats on the provincial governing council are now held mostly by Kurds after most Sunnis boycotted the last provincial polls in 2005. But the balance of power in Mosul is expected to change when provincial elections take place by late January.
Christians, who are believed to number around 250,000 to 300,000 in the province, could be a swing vote, targeted by one side or the other in a fight for power.
Unrest in Mosul is exacerbated by a jobless rate of around 60 percent and years of delays in fixing basic services like electricity, sewage, proper health care and education.
"You've got a perfect storm of political alienation, unemployment, disruption in rural economies, scattering of rural households -- so you've got a political grievances," said one U.S. government official in Mosul, unauthorized to speak on the record. "Match that to a potential labour pool of insurgents, and throw foreign terrorist organizations into the mix."
U.S. and Iraqi forces are rolling out a new security operation which they hope will root out remaining insurgents, suppress political violence and protect minorities in Mosul. But as of Saturday, just seven Christian families had returned to their homes, Thomas said. "Obviously, we can't force them back in, but we're trying to encourage them." (Editing by Sami Aboudi)
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