Iraq Christians on edge as cartoon row escalates

Baghdad, Iraq - Iraq's Christians are bracing for attacks on their ancient community, fearful that deadly bombings of their churches last month were linked to Muslim fury over cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad published in Europe.

"The church blasts were a reaction to the cartoons published in European papers. But Christians are not responsible for what is published in Europe," Louis Sako, the Chaldean archbishop of Kirkuk, told Reuters in the northern city.

"Innocent people were killed because of these cartoons ... this is terror," he said, referring to car bombings at several churches last month that killed three people and wounded 17.

The caricatures of Mohammad published in European newspapers have enraged Muslims worldwide, including Iraq, where al Qaeda and other militant groups have been launching spectacular suicide bombs since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Sako and ordinary Iraqi Christians provide no proof that the cartoons were connected with the church blasts, but their suspicions are enough to put them on edge.

Christians have inhabited the region that is now Iraq for about 2,000 years but started leaving the country after attacks on churches began in 2004.

Tracing their ancestry to ancient Mesopotamia, Christians are deeply attached to Iraq but worry that the rage over the cartoons will only bring them more violence.

Newspapers in France, Germany, Spain, Switzerland and Hungary, expressing support for freedom of the press, have reprinted caricatures originally published in Denmark, or photos of publications that printed them. One original cartoon was of Mohammad wearing a turban shaped like a bomb.

Muslims consider any images of Mohammad to be blasphemous.

Christians used to make up 3 percent of Iraq's population, numbering about 1 million. But that figure has fallen to below 800,000.

Under Saddam's secular regime, some Christians like then-Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz climbed to the top. He was the public face of Iraq.

Anti-Christian violence was rare. Those days are long gone.

In August of 2004, Iraq's government blamed al Qaeda ally Abu Musab al-Zarqawi for a series of church bombings that killed at least 11 people, saying the aim was to spark religious strife and drive Christians out of the country.

"Caricatures offensive to Muslims gave a pretext for terrorists to blow up churches and kill innocents," said 50- year-old teacher Ashur Yalda in Kirkuk.

"Today I'm afraid to walk the streets, because I'm Christian."

In the mostly Sunni Arab city of Falluja, mosque preacher Abu Abdullah of the militant group Mohammad's Army had one thing on his mind.

"We will take revenge for publishing offensive cartoons," he told Reuters.

Falluja residents said they were preparing for protests after Friday prayers. And in the southern city of Basra, Shi'ite militants torched the Danish flag.

"The sect of infidelity (Christianity) is only one and there is no difference between a Danish infidel and a French or British one," said Khaled Khateeb, a mosque preacher in Falluja.

That is the kind of talk that has made Iraqi Christians fear for their lives.