Christian killed in northern Iraqi city

Baghdad, Iraq - The Christian owner of a car repair shop was killed execution-style in Mosul, police said Saturday, raising concern about the possibility of new attacks against the religious minority in the northern Iraqi city.

The body of the 36-year-old man, who was shot in the head, was found Thursday, according to police and hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Another Christian man, an engineer in the city's water department, was kidnapped in early January but was released four days later after his family paid a $50,000 ransom.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the killing or the kidnapping, but they followed a pattern of violence and intimidation that sent thousands of Christians fleeing from their homes in Mosul in the fall.

Bassem Balu, an official with the Democratic Assyrian Movement, sought to maintain calm, saying the motives for this week's killing were not yet known. The movement is the largest Christian party.

"For the time being, I do not think that this will slow the return of the Christians to Mosul," he said. "I hope that this murder won't signal the start of a new campaign against the Christians in Mosul."

Some Mosul residents have filtered back since the fall exodus, but others remain with relatives in the safer countryside or have sought refuge in neighboring Syria despite government pledges of financial support and protection.

Reflecting the continued fear, Christian candidates running for the Jan. 31 provincial elections have not been campaigning in Mosul but were limiting their activities to Christian areas outside the city.

Saad Tanyous, one of the candidates seeking a seat on the provincial council, said Christians were not even putting posters on the walls in Mosul.

Christians have frequently been targeted amid the fierce sectarian fighting that broke out after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, although the attacks have ebbed with a sharp drop in overall violence.

Churches, priests and businesses of the generally prosperous, well-educated community have been attacked by militants who denounce Christians as pro-American "crusaders."

In an exodus which began after the 1991 Gulf War and escalated dramatically after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Iraq has lost more than half its Christian population of some 1 million.

The body of Paulos Rahho, the Chaldean Catholic archbishop of Mosul, also was found in March following his abduction by gunmen after a Mass.

Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, remains one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq despite security gains.

Gunmen also killed two Iraqi soldiers on a foot patrol in the city Saturday afternoon, police said.

Tensions have been rising ahead of the provincial elections, which are aimed at more equitably distributing power and stemming support for the insurgency.

Haider al-Ibadi, a Shiite lawmaker from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party, condemned Friday's assassination of candidate Hashim al-Husseini south of Baghdad.

"This crime should not go unpunished and we call upon security forces to chase the killers as soon as possible and put them on trial," he said, calling for stepped-up protection for candidates.