January 6, 2011 / 5:56 PM / in 7 years

INTERVIEW-Iraq's al Qaeda focused on Christian attacks-US

* Al Qaeda targeting Christian homes

* Iraqi security giving Christians extra protection

By Serena Chaudhry

BAGHDAD, Jan 6 (Reuters) -Al Qaeda in Iraq is targeting Christians in their homes after Iraqi authorities increased protection around the minority group’s churches, a U.S. commander said on Thursday.

Lieutenant General Robert Cone, the U.S. deputy commanding general for operations in Iraq, said the Sunni Islamist group seemed determined to continue attacks against Christians following a siege of a Catholic cathedral two months ago.

“Al Qaeda has shifted to try and go after the Christians where they live,” Cone told Reuters in an interview.

“Right now they seem to be focused on the Christians,” he said, adding that there was no intelligence to suggest attacks were being planned against other minorities in the country.

A series of bomb attacks on the homes of minority Christians in Baghdad last Thursday killed two people and injured at least 16. The blasts followed an Oct. 31 assault on a Syrian Catholic cathedral in the Iraqi capital in which 52 people were killed.

The Islamic State of Iraq, the local affiliate of al Qaeda, has said Iraqi Christians risk further attacks unless they pressure the Christian church in Egypt to release women it said the church was holding after they had converted to Islam.

On New Year’s Day, a blast outside a church in Egypt’s port city of Alexandria killed up to 23. Islamist radicals have been calling for many months on jihadi websites for attacks on the Egyptian Coptic church.

Cone, whose troops are due to withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011, more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion, said Iraqi security forces were concerned and had increased protection for Christians.

“There are 144 churches in Iraq and they (Iraqi security forces) have assisted in putting up barriers and blast protection,” he said.

“They have directed additional security patrols and police, and in some cases have facilitated even local community watches where Christians live at home.”

On Thursday, the eve of Coptic Christmas, Iraqi army forces found a cache of explosives in a house near a Syrian Catholic church in Mosul, said Colonel Imadaldin Abdul Karim, spokesman for the second Iraqi army division based in Mosul.

An Iraqi army source said the cache included six bombs and two explosive vests and the authorities believed it was intended to be used in an attack on a church.

Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian warfare between majority Shi‘ites and once dominant Sunnis triggered after the fall in 2003 of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, but bombings and shootings remain daily occurrences.

Iraq’s Christians, who have frequently been targeted, once numbered about 1.5 million but are now believed to have fallen to less than 850,000 out of a population of 30 million.

Some 1,000 Christian families, or 6,000 people, have fled to Iraq’s northern Kurdish region, or to regional countries, since the assault on the cathedral, the U.N. said last month. (Editing by Michael Christie and Jason Neely)

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