BAGHDAD — Predawn explosions yesterday ripped through five empty Christian churches in the Iraqi capital, which by nightfall also was the scene of the crashes of two U.S. helicopters, which killed two soldiers and wounded two others.
The church bombings occurred the day after the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Thousands of Christians have fled Iraq since the fall of the regime of Saddam Hussein. The church bombings, while claiming no casualties, appeared calculated to intimidate the remaining believers, estimated to number about 800,000.
“It was horrible,” said Odet Abdul, 48, who attends one of the bombed churches and lives around the block, adding that she thought she was about to die when she heard the blast. “They want us to leave Iraq; that is the message.”
The U.S. military said the causes of the helicopter crashes were not known; several copters have been shot down since November. The military’s main attack helicopters, Apaches and Kiowa Warriors, are two-seat aircraft and usually fly in pairs.
The United States said the crashes occurred in southwest Baghdad about 8:30 p.m.
Christians in the capital swept up debris at the five churches, which were attacked within an hour and a half of each other starting about 4:30 a.m.
The Catholic Church of St. George was left a shell, barely standing. Large portions of the 2-foot-thick brick walls had collapsed and a fire consumed the carpets, pews, icons and plaster inside the domed building. A 2-foot-deep hole was found in the foundation directly on the doorstep, possibly where the bomb was planted.
Terrorist bombers struck five other Iraqi churches in a similar coordinated attack Aug.1 — four in Baghdad and one in Mosul — during afternoon Mass, killing at least seven.
Christian-owned liquor stores and DVD stores have been attacked by fanatical Muslims who oppose the sale of such merchandise.
Nabil Jameel Suleiman, 40, a member of the St. George church, said he and his children were sleeping in an adjoining building when the blast occurred. They were not injured.
He said he planned to clean up the ashes and debris around the battered marble altar so the priest could celebrate Mass there today.
“Just to clarify that we will continue to do the Mass in the church and nothing will affect us,” he said. “All Iraqis are threatened, when you go to work, go to school.”
No group took responsibility for the attacks, which were condemned by the Association of Muslim Scholars, a Sunni clerical group believed to have ties to some insurgents, the Associated Press reported.
“Islam doesn’t support the ongoing terrorism,” Sheik Abdul Sattar Abdul-Jabbar of the association told the AP.
The U.S. Marines’ ground and air attacks on the insurgent-controlled city of Fallujah briefly eased yesterday. Leaders in Fallujah said they wanted to resume negotiations with the Iraqi government and the Marines. But as night fell, U.S. forces resumed an attack on a suspected militant target.
The heads of Fallujah tribes and other city leaders had halted negotiations last week after Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi demanded that they turn over Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Zarqawi, believed to be in Fallujah.
The Fallujah delegation said it cannot control or capture him any more easily than the Americans could do so. The Fallujah leadership, while supporting the local Iraqi resistance, has tried to distance itself publicly from Zarqawi.
Fallujah negotiator Khaled Fakhri al-Jumeili told reporters that “we are ready to return to the negotiating table” if U.S. air strikes are stopped, the AP reported.
U.S. and Iraqi leaders vow to recapture Fallujah and other Iraqi cities before holding national parliamentary elections in January.
American officials had predicted an increase in attacks with the start of Ramadan on Friday. The interim Iraqi government and the U.S.-led coalition have withstood a wave of attacks for more than two months; at least 50 car bombings have occurred since early September.
During the past few days:
Two blasts inside the green zone headquarters of the U.S. and Iraqi leadership Thursday killed at least five persons.
A mortar strike near a Baghdad hospital early Thursday killed one Iraqi.
A car-bomb attack at a police station in southern Baghdad killed 10 Friday.
A car bombing Friday killed three U.S. troops and an Iraqi translator in Qaim, a town near the Syrian border primarily patrolled by Marines.
The U.S. Army announced that another car bomb, near the northern city of Mosul, killed a soldier.
The U.S. military yesterday announced the deaths of four other soldiers in two car bombings Friday.