Iraqi cleric condemns slaying of Christians

Kirkuk, Iraq - An Iraqi Christian leader told mourners Monday that the slayings of three Christians a day earlier was an act of religious terrorism that raised fears of more sectarian violence in the northern city of Kirkuk.

The attackers shot the victims at point-blank range in the head and chest at their homes.

"Innocent people who have no relation with politics and never harmed anyone were killed by terrorists in their homes just because they were Christians," said Chaldean Archbishop Louis Sako a day after gunmen attacked two Christian houses in separate attacks.

Iraqi officials have struggled over how to resolve the deep ethnic rifts in Kirkuk, about 180 miles north of Baghdad. The oil-rich area is at the center of a power contest between the majority Kurds and Arabs, but it also includes ethnic Turks and various Christian groups.

Speaking to mourners at Kirkuk's main Chaldean church, Sako blamed political leaders for failing to reach compromises on the many ethnic and political disputes.

"It seems that violence is coming back and they lost that chance," he told a gathering of about 600 people, including representatives from the Kurdish, Turkomen and Arab communities.

Two of the victims were Chaldean Christians and the other was Assyrian. Family members said they all would be buried in their home regions near Mosul.

There have been no arrests or claims of responsibility for the late Sunday attacks, but Kirkuk authorities and some Christian leaders suspect Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Iraq.

Kirkuk police Lt. Col. Anwar Qadir said the slayings appear to be an attempt by al-Qaida to spark sectarian clashes.

Yashor Benyamin, a Christian rights activist in Kirkuk, said the attacks carried the "fingerprints" of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Iraq reaffirms U.S. pullout

The Iraqi government cast doubt Monday on the possibility that American troops will remain in urban trouble spots like Mosul after the June 30 deadline for U.S. forces to withdraw from cities.

An uptick of violence in recent weeks has prompted concern about whether Iraqi forces are prepared to take over responsibility for security. U.S. commanders have pointed to Mosul and areas in the volatile province of Diyala north of the capital as possible exceptions to the withdrawal plans.

The Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari, however, said U.S. troops must leave by the agreed deadline and could return only with permission from the Iraqi government.

"The general position of the Iraq Defense Ministry is to keep the timings in the withdrawal pact that American troops withdraw from Iraqi cities and not enter the cities unless they get Iraqi approval," al-Askari said.