| MOSUL, Iraq
MOSUL, Iraq In a quiet neighborhood where pear trees and roses peep over garden walls, a shattered vase lies beside blocks of concrete and dust, all that is left of a Christian family's home blown up this month.
Around the way are the ruins of two other Christian-owned homes, nothing more than rubble piled under their roofs.
All three were bombed within minutes of one another, part of a campaign of violence this month that has caused at least 1,500 Christian families to flee the city, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse in Iraq.
Neighbors say some of the families were ordered out by unknown men just minutes before their houses were destroyed.
Recent attacks and threats against Christians have caused alarm from Baghdad to the Vatican to the United Nations.
The violence brought to the fore the plight of a religious minority that numbers in the hundreds of thousands in mainly Muslim Iraq, and exposed rifts in a part of the country where ethnic diversity has created a delicate balance of power.
Local authorities say the fears of a wave of anti-Christian violence have been overblown to provoke panic, and predict that the families will soon return.
Zuhair Muhsin al-Aaraji, Mosul's mayor, said that at least 35 Christian families had returned home.
"We had one or two incidents that were exaggerated by the media. I'm positive that the Christian families will return to the city and live normally -- no one will attack them," Aaraji, a member of Iraq's small minority Shabak sect, told Reuters.
The U.S. military has also said the violence may have been exaggerated as part of an effort to stir up tension.
Wednesday, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, met Christian leaders and again promised protection.
"Those who have caused the displacement of Christians from their homes will be punished, and all the parties that stood behind these armed elements ... will be held accountable," Maliki's office said in a statement.
About 12 Christians have been reported killed this month, although U.S. forces say they cannot verify many of the attacks.
HIDDEN PLOTS, UNKNOWN PLOTTERS
Iraqi officials have been cautious about assigning blame. In Mosul, everyone speaks about hidden plots and unknown plotters.
"The escalating issue of the Christians is used by certain groups to fulfill their own agendas. They will be discovered soon, God willing," Aaraji said.
Maliki's statement said: "What the Christians in Mosul have confronted is part of a political plan," but it offered no explanation of whose plan was meant.
The commander of U.S. forces in Mosul, Brigadier General Tony Thomas, has blamed Sunni Islamist militants for the attacks. U.S. and Iraqi forces are struggling to end to a stubborn insurgency in the city as violence drops nationally.
Others, including many Christians, quietly point a finger at Mosul's powerful Kurdish minority, which controls the provincial council and makes up a majority in the local army. Kurds, some say, want to show that Mosul cannot be controlled without them.
Provincial elections due by the end of January could see Kurds' power reduced in the province when Arabs, many of whom boycotted the last election, take part for the first time.
An initial draft of an election law would have guaranteed Christians a small number of seats on the provincial council, but parliament removed that quota last month, prompting some Christians to take to the streets to demonstrate.
Despite the mayor's assurances, U.S. officials say it may be months before the Christians come home.
"I don't think they will be returning in the near term," Lieutenant Colonel Robert Molinari, an officer with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Mosul, said.
"Christians are only going to return when they think there are conditions" that they trust, he said.
U.S. and Iraqi forces began their latest security offensive earlier this month, and have promised to take special care to reinforce Christian neighborhoods.
"These families are willing to go back on the condition of security," said father Gabriele Tooma, a Christian priest at a monastery near Mosul where some families have taken refuge. "We are waiting for the central powers and army to do something."
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Khalid al-Ansary and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad)