February 17, 2010 / 5:44 PM / 10 years ago

Spate of Christian killings before Iraq March vote

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Four Christians have been killed in the last four days by gunmen in Iraq’s turbulent north, weeks ahead of an election in which the minority group’s vote could be a factor in a Kurd-Arab tussle for power.

Bombings and shootings are recorded almost daily in the violent northern city of Mosul, where a struggle for territory and power between Arabs and Kurds has hampered effective policing and been exploited by al Qaeda.

“We do not know anything except the situation is miserable in Mosul. We Christians became the target of political struggles,” said a Christian priest in Mosul who declined to be named.

With Iraq’s March 7 parliamentary vote looming, a spike in attacks against Christians could be a sign of voter intimidation by factions in the bitter Kurd-Arab dispute, or another attempt by al Qaeda to derail the election.

Sunni Islamist insurgent groups such as al Qaeda have little tolerance for those who do not adhere to their severe brand of Islam, and have attacked Iraqi minorities they label crusaders, devil worshippers and infidels.

In a November report, Human Rights Watch warned Kurd-Arab tensions put Iraq’s minorities in a precarious position. Tensions are now likely exacerbated by the election.

There is a quota in parliament for Christian seats, but there are Christian lists of election candidates which include some that are closer to the Kurds, others who are independent, and others closer to the Arabs.

An al Qaeda affiliated group in Iraq last week said it would use military means to prevent the vote, given that Iraq’s majority Shi’ites, whom they consider heretics, are likely to lead Iraq’s next government.

On Wednesday morning police said they found the body of a Christian student, a day after gunmen opened fire on two other Christian students, killing one of them.

On Monday, gunmen stormed a grocery store and killed its Christian owner. A day earlier, a Christian man was shot dead outside his home.

Christians number around 250,000 to 300,000 in Nineveh province, of which Mosul is capital.

Abdul-Raheem al-Shemari, head of the provincial council’s security committee, said a “systematic campaign” of violence against minorities had started late last year and that there were “political motives” behind the attacks.

Sabah Belda, a tailor and a Christian, said he had shuttered his shop and would go into hiding after hearing of the latest Christian slayings.

“I will hide in my house to watch out for my family until things change and the assassinations targeting us in recent days end,” he said.

Additional reporting and writing by Aseel Kami; Editing by Mohammed Abbas and Jon Hemming

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