Iraq Tightens Security Around Churches, Christian Towns After Wave of Attacks

Baghdad, Iraq - Iraqi authorities on Monday tightened security around churches across Baghdad and in two Christian towns in the northern province of Nineveh, amid fears that a series of attacks against them could escalate.

The security measures were imposed a day after bombings in and around churches in Baghdad killed four people and wounded many others. One of the bombs went off as worshipers were leaving Mass in an eastern Baghdad neighborhood.

An explosion erupted Monday near a church in a Christian neighborhood in Mosul, which remains Iraq's most dangerous city. Sunni insurgents are believed to have regrouped there after being largely defeated in Baghdad and other areas.

"These attacks aim to spark strife again between different Iraqi communities," said Ali al-Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman. "As with previous attempts, they did not succeed."

Authorities in Nineveh imposed a ban on vehicles in Tilkaif and Hamdaniyah, two mostly Christian towns, out of concern about car bombings.

"There is fear among Christians," said Youssef Bahgat, a 21-year-old guard outside Evangelical Christian Union Church in the mostly Christian Sinai neighborhood in Baghdad.

Two soldiers on foot patrolled the alley where the church is located. On a parallel street, dozens of policemen and Iraqi soldiers stood guard outside another church.

No one asserted responsibility for the attacks, but across a landscape where motivations are plenty, leaders began casting suspicions.

"Some parties are trying to use the minorities in their political battle," said Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Nineveh. "But we can and will protect them."

Iraq's Christians were the target of Islamist extremists after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein. Many have fled the country despite improved security. But fears of renewed attacks have mounted. In past weeks, devastating bombings also have struck Iraq's Turkmen and Shabak minorities in the north, which remains one of Iraq's most diverse regions.

U.S. troops completed a scheduled withdrawal from urban areas last month, leaving security largely in the hands of their Iraqi counterparts. But attacks like those the past two days have underscored worries among many Iraqis that their forces are not yet ready to protect them.