Iraqi ChristiansHalloween brought new terror to Christian communities this year throughout Iraq. Since the slaughter began in Baghdad on October 31, Christians have been repeatedly targeted in killings throughout the country. Over the past two weeks, most of the violence has been concentrated in the north.

The Associated Press reports that

Two Iraqi Christian brothers were gunned down inside their vehicle workshop in the restive northern city of Mosul on Monday, police said. Saad Hanna, 43, and Waad Hanna, 40, were shot dead at around noon in the city, 350 kilometres north of Baghdad, the latest in a spate of attacks targeting the minority community in Iraq.

What the AFP does not mention is that these killings were accompanied by a third that same day in the city, when security forces found an elderly Christian woman strangled to death in her home. These murders are the latest in a string tracing back to

Earlier this month, [when] a series of bomb and mortar attacks targeted the homes and businesses of Christians in the capital Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 33 and drawing international condemnation. Those attacks came less than two weeks after 44 Christian worshippers, two priests and seven security personnel died in the seizure of a Baghdad cathedral by Islamist gunmen and the ensuing shootout when it was stormed by troops.

Of course, none of this is new. Beyond the headline-grabbing violence between Sunni and Shiite factions that has rent the country since 2003, Christian communities have suffered their share of sectarian targeting as well. The attacks have been a common feature of the urban landscape of the northern city of Mosul and its immediate environs—an early cradle of the Catholic faith—along the Nineveh plain.

At least on its face, the singling out of Christian communities in the north appears to be latest in a series of scare tactics employed by local extremists who have been gathering strength in recent months as American troops have withdrawn from major combat operations and handed security responsibilities to the Iraqi state.

Yet as I discovered while traveling through northern Iraq during a particularly acute period of Christian slayings, other explanations have been offered to account for the mayhem. Human Rights Watch sums it up best in a reported dating from late 2009:

Kurdish-dominated secu­rity forces were in charge of secu­rity in the area the attacks took place, [lead­ing some to sug­gest] that the mur­der cam­paign was designed to under­mine con­fi­dence in the cen­tral government’s secu­rity forces. From this per­spec­tive, the attacks cre­ated an oppor­tu­nity for the [Kur­dish author­i­ties] to appear benev­o­lent before the Chris­t­ian com­mu­nity and the world by sub­se­quently pro­vid­ing shel­ter, secu­rity, and finan­cial assis­tance to those who fled the attacks into Kur­dis­tan, strength­en­ing the Kur­dish hand in any upcom­ing ref­er­en­dum or election.

It’s far from clear whether these accusations have merit, though worth pointing out that The National Conversation reports today that

With attacks on their community continuing, Iraqi Christians in Baghdad are looking north to the Kurdish region, as they seek safety and an alternative to fleeing their country entirely… The Iraqi president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd from the northern city of Sulemaniya, last week said that rather than fleeing overseas, Christians should move to the secure autonomously administered Kurdish areas until the situation elsewhere had stabilized. It is an offer that many Christians here are now seriously contemplating.

The paper goes on to observe that

Thousands of Iraqi Christians have already sought and found refuge in the Kurdish provinces. In Erbil, the Kurds’ administrative capital, the flourishing Ankawa neighborhood has been built up and populated by Christians, with the support of the Kurdish authorities. Even outside of Kurd-run areas, in Ninewah province, Kurds have helped to secure the Christian villages to the north and east of Mosul, the provincial capital. That help has not been uncontroversial, with some viewing it as part of a land grab by the Kurds in their long territorial dispute with the country’s Arabs.

Whether terrorist outfits or Kurdish political machinations are behind the slayings, the recent attacks against Iraqi Christian communities offer further evidence that—no matter the outcome of what happens Thursday when, barring any further delays, a new government finally takes shape in Baghdad—the country remains a fragile shell incapable of providing the basic security conditions that a strong society demands if it is to survive, let alone prosper.

Michael Busch, a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor, teaches international relations at the City College of New York and serves as research associate at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies. He is currently working on a doctorate in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

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