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Dozens dead in Iraqi seizure of Catholic church in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — Insurgents seized control of a church in central Baghdad on Sunday, taking hostages during evening mass after attacking a checkpoint at the Baghdad Stock Exchange.

Iraqi security forces later stormed the church, and at least 30 hostages died in the ensuing explosions and fighting. Seven security force members also died, according to an Interior Ministry official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to release details to the news merdia.

“I don’t know what the armed group would have done to the civilians, but it can’t be much worse than what that security force did,” the official said.

The four-hour long standoff at Our Lady of Salvation Catholic Church in Baghdad's Karada district underscored two major issues facing Iraqis as the U.S. withdrawal continues: security remains fragile, with insurgent groups able to mount deadly attacks seemingly at will, while at the same time the Iraqi security forces seem ill-equipped to respond in an effective way.

Officials said the attack began with a grenade tossed at a checkpoint at the stock exchange after it had closed for the day. Two members of the Iraqi security forces were killed in that attack and at least four were wounded.

Ater exchanging fire with security forces, the gunmen moved to the nearby church, where worshipers were celebrating Sunday evening mass.

During the mayhem, the insurgents detonated explosives inside their car by remote control, setting off a blast that shook the McClatchy offices about a mile away.

The Interior Ministry official said there were approximately 40 worshipers inside the church as well as church employees.

Security forces quickly arrived and surrounded the church and local television stations began coverage. "It is an armed attack on the Our Lady of Salvation church. Three explosions occurred and our forces are surrounding the area," Major-General Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the Baghdad operations command, told Iraqi media.

An Iraqi television station, al-Baghdadiya, said the gunmen told them in a phone call that they were from the Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida-affiliated group. It said the attackers were demanding the release of al Qaida prisoners being held in Iraq and Egypt.

Details of what happened next are sketchy, but the Iraqi security forces were joined by air support, the Interior Minsitry official said. Such air support typically would be provided by the United States. They then stormed the church.

"Their objective was to wipe out the armed group," the Interior Ministry official said. "As a result casualties stand at 37 killed, including seven security servicemen, and 56 injured, including 15 security servicemen. Of the civilians who were inside the church fewer than 10 left on their own feet — the rest were either killed or severely injured."

A U.S. military spokesman said that the United States provided only aerial surveillance, but witnesses said they saw U.S. soldiers on the scene.

The Vatican has said it is deeply concerned over the fate of Iraq's dwindling Christian minority. They are believed to number less than five percent of Iraq's population, with tens of thousands of families having fled violence and attacks against churches in traditional Christian enclaves.

(Hammoudi and Issa are McClatchy special correspondents. Jane Arraf of The Christian Science Monitor contributed to this report. McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor operate a joint bureau in Baghdad.)