BAGHDAD — An explosive device detonated beside a convoy in which the U.S. ambassador was traveling in southern Iraq late Sunday afternoon about the same time that Christian churches across Baghdad were hit by a wave of bombings. The attacks offered new evidence that Iraq remains far from stable after American forces withdrew from its cities at the end of June.
There were no injuries among the U.S. Embassy personnel traveling in Ambassador Christopher Hill's convoy in Dhi Qar province when an improvised device exploded, said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Susan Ziadeh.
The bomb was small, but it hit a vehicle near the ambassador's as the heavily armored SUVs passed through the provincial capital, Nasiriya. It is the first such attack on a U.S. envoy since the American-led invasion in March 2003. "There was a bang and we went through a thick cloud of smoke," Hill told Aamer Madhani, a journalist with USA Today traveling with him, according to the newspaper's website. "It was nothing."
Dhi Qar is a Shiite Muslim-dominated province that has long been one of the quietest in Iraq, but it is heavily under the influence of Shiite militias, some of which have close ties to Iran. U.S. troops maintain only a minimal presence across southern Iraq and pulled out of the cities there long ago. Bombings are rare, and the fact that one came close to hitting the ambassador's vehicle underscored that even the calmest areas of Iraq cannot be considered secure.
Meanwhile, six bombs exploded outside churches around Baghdad, killing four and sowing fears among the country's dwindling Christian minority that they may be subject to a fresh round of persecution now that U.S. forces have withdrawn from Iraq's cities.
The deaths occurred when a car bomb detonated outside Virgin Mary Church on Palestine Street in east Baghdad as worshipers were leaving evening Mass. Sixteen others were wounded in the attack.
"This is going to make the Christians scared," said Bishop Shlemon Warduni, who was in his office at the back of the church when the bomb went off. "They will be scared to come to services, and maybe more will leave the country."
That attack came shortly after five smaller bombs exploded outside four other churches in the Karada and Dora neighborhoods, both of which once had sizable Christian communities. The four churches were closed at the time, police said.
Sunday's attacks came after one church was bombed late Saturday, pointing to a renewed campaign of violence against one of Iraq's oldest, smallest and most persecuted communities less than two weeks after U.S. forces completed their pullback, leaving Iraqi forces in charge of security in the cities.
Christian legislator Younadam Kanna tied the bombings to the withdrawal and to Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's scheduled July 21 visit to the U.S. Extremists are trying to demonstrate that Baghdad is still unstable, Kanna said, and the easiest way to draw American attention is to bomb Christians. "It's a message to the international community."
Others feared that the attacks may mark a resurgence of anti-Christian violence. They were reminiscent of a wave of bloody bombings against five churches in Baghdad and Mosul five years ago. Those bombings signaled the beginning of widespread attacks by Islamic extremists that prompted an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Christians.
Nobody knows for sure how many Christians have left, said Abdullah Nufaili, who heads the Christian Endowment, a state organization that oversees churches. But he estimates that a community that once made up 5% of the population -- or about 800,000 people -- now totals less than 2%.
"Definitely we are the most vulnerable members of this society and we don't have any political forces to protect us," he said. "We were expecting this, and we expect it to get worse. . . . Their goal is to drive the Christians out of Iraq."
Times staff writer Caesar Ahmed contributed to this report.