At least 7 hostages slain at Baghdad church

Iraqi security forces Sunday rescued dozens of worshipers held hostage in a church by gunmen with explosives vests and stun grenades. As many as 39 people died during the four-hour ordeal, according to security forces.

The assault started with gunmen attacking the nearby Baghdad stock exchange. They retreated and stormed the Our Lady of Salvation Church, killing two policemen guarding an estimated 120 worshipers attending evening services. The militants managed to detonate a car bomb outside, killing several police on the street, an Interior Ministry official said.

Police immediately sealed off the surrounding area in the busy Karada commercial district. The American military was called in to help. As U.S. Army helicopters buzzed overheads, American officers accompanied Iraqi commanders and shared satellite imagery, according to Iraqi police and the U.S. military.

A man claiming to be one of the attackers called in to the satellite TV channel Al Baghdadiya and said the group was demanding the release of Al Qaeda prisoners in Egypt. He said hostages would be executed if the authorities failed to meet the group’s demands.

A police officer on the scene said security forces decided to storm the church at 9 p.m. after negotiations with the kidnappers had stalled. Security forces had to break through entrances that had been barricaded as most of the militants retreated to the back of the church. One of the attackers detonated his explosives vest, killing some of the parishioners, the policeman said.

Another official said that eight of the hostage-takers surrendered, and two others were wounded; he said one priest died from his injuries.

There were conflicting figures on the death toll. The U.S. military said seven to 10 hostages were killed, along with up to seven militants and seven Iraqi security personnel. However, an Interior Ministry official said that 29 civilians, nine security personnel and the suicide bomber were killed.

Baghdad last saw a major attack in mid-September, when two car bombs exploded in the capital. Even as mass-casualty attacks have become fewer, near daily assassinations have left people jittery and worried that the country’s security could unravel and that they could see a return to the anarchy of civil war in 2006.

The assailants targeted Iraq’s vulnerable Christian minority, which once numbered more than 1 million and has shrunk in the last two decades, in large part because of the violence. Extremists have often attacked the minority group, viewing it as a fifth column of Western influences.

As much as the siege stunned Baghdad, it also pointed to the Iraqi security forces’ ability to fight back. At the end of the confrontation, the security forces had rescued most of the estimated 120 hostages.

“It appeared to be a very precise, tactical and professional operation,” said U.S. Army spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Bloom, commenting on the storming of the church. “Tonight’s successful operation by the [Iraqi security forces] is proof of their tactical competency to provide professional security to the citizens of Iraq.”

Zeki is a Times staff writer.