THE IRAQI government admitted yesterday that 52 people were killed and 67 wounded on Sunday night when security forces stormed a Chaldean Catholic church in Baghdad where gunmen were holding 120 people hostage.
At dusk the gunmen, who had exchanged fire with guards at the stock exchange across the street, entered Our Lady of Salvation church during Mass. They shot one of the priests and herded the congregation into a hall. During a mobile phone call to a television station, a gunman demanded the release of al-Qaeda prisoners and two women allegedly detained by the Coptic church in Egypt after converting to Islam. He spoke classical Arabic rather than local dialect, indicating he was not Iraqi.
A statement posted on the website of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda affiliate that claimed the operation, warned that Iraqi Christians would be "exterminated" if the women were not freed.
A stand-off ensued until nine o'clock when dozens of Iraqi commandos mounted an assault at ground level and by dropping from helicopters.
Although US troops were on the scene in the middle-class Karada district, it is not clear whether or not they were involved.
Iraqi defence minister Abdul Qadr al-Obeidi claimed the security forces had no choice but to act and argued that the operation had been "successfully done".
But few Iraqis are likely to agree. A Christian lawmaker, Younadem Kana, said the operation was "not professional" but "a hasty action that prompted the terrorists to kill the worshippers.
"We have no clear picture yet whether the worshippers were killed by security force bullets or by terrorists, but what we know is that most of [the faithful] were killed when the security forces started to storm the church."
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The majority of Iraqis have little faith in the reconstituted security forces because neither troops or police have been able to prevent or counter such attacks. Last Friday, 26 people died in a suicide bombing in a repeatedly targeted northern Kurdish town.
Troops at checkpoints are accused either of being in league with insurgents or of accepting bribes to allow armed men and bombers to reach their targets.
Sunday's bloody operation is certain to deal a blow to the standing of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, who says that the country's security forces, commanded by him and armed and trained by the US, are capable of safeguarding civilians after the withdrawal of US units.
Mr Maliki, who seeks a second term in office, has been unable to form a government over the past seven months. The political vacuum has led to a rise in violence.
The assault on Our Lady of Salvation church, previously attacked in August 2004, could prompt a fresh exodus of Iraqi Christians.
Since many are doctors, lawyers, businessmen and engineers, their departure would deprive the country of people needed to rebuild it.
Since the 2003 US war, two-thirds of this 2,000-year-old Christian community has either fled the country or taken refuge in the relative security of the Kurdish region.