An al Qaeda attack that killed 52 hostages and police in a Catholic church in Baghdad was aimed at driving the embattled Christian minority out of the country, Iraq`s human rights minister said on Monday.
Church officials described the attack, which began when gunmen seized the Our Lady of Salvation Church during Sunday mass, as the bloodiest against Iraq`s Christians in the seven years of sectarian war that followed the 2003 US-led invasion.
A Christian lawmaker said the botched raid to free the hostages proved that the Iraqi security forces lack the capability to maintain peace.
Lieutenant General Hussein Kamal, a deputy interior minister said 52 hostages and police were killed and 67 wounded in the incident, which ended with police storming the Assyrian Catholic church to free more than 100 hostages seized by guerrillas.
The death toll was many times higher than that given overnight in the hours after the raid.
"What happened was more than a catastrophic and tragic event. In my opinion, it is an attempt to force Iraqi Christians to leave Iraq and to empty Iraq of Christians," Human Rights Minister Wijdan Michael, a Christian, said at the scene.
Al Qaeda`s Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed responsibility in a statement posted on Islamist websites for the attack on "the dirty den of idolatry."
At least one bomb exploded at the start of the siege. Sporadic gunfire rang out for several hours over the Karrada neighborhood near the heavily fortified Green Zone district where many embassies and government offices are located.
US and Iraqi military helicopters thundered overhead as security forces cordoned off the area.
A federal police source who declined to be identified said Sunday`s rescue operation was extremely difficult.
"The attackers were among children, armed with weapons," the source said. "Most of the casualties were killed or wounded when the security forces raided the place."
Officials say some of the attackers blew up explosives vests or threw grenades during the raid. Security sources said many of the victims died in gunfights between police and insurgents.
Iraq`s Christians, who once numbered 1.5 million out of a total Iraqi population of about 30 million, have frequently been targeted by militants since the invasion, with churches bombed and priests assassinated. Many have fled.
Our Lady of Salvation was one of five churches in Baghdad and Mosul hit in coordinated attacks in August 2004 in which 12 people were killed.
Pope Benedict condemned Sunday`s attack in remarks to pilgrims gathered to hear his prayer in St Peter`s Square for the Catholic All Saints` Day holiday.
"I pray for the victims of this senseless violence, made even more ferocious because it struck defenseless people who were gathered in the house of God, which is a house of love and reconciliation," he said.
Although violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian bloodshed in 2006-07, attacks by Sunni insurgents and Shi`ite militia continue daily.
The failure of Iraqi leaders to agree on a new government since an inconclusive March election has added to tension just as US forces cut back their presence and ended combat operations ahead of a full withdrawal next year.
A Christian lawmaker denounced the performance of Iraqi forces and said insurgents were exploiting the political vacuum.
"This operation hits at the credibility of the government and its ability to handle, preserve and impose security and the enforcement of law," member of parliament Younadam Kana said.
"Because of their lack of professionalism, and the hasty action taken by security forces in freeing the hostages, many innocent people were killed."
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Iraq would not be deterred from clawing its way out of bloodshed and violence.
"This crime of terrorism was aimed at destabilizing security and stability and creating chaos and driving Iraqis from their homeland," Maliki said in a statement, demanding vigilance from Iraq`s security forces.
Sunday`s attack followed the bombing of a cafe in Diyala province on Friday in which 22 people died, interrupting a relatively long period without a major assault by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents.
The previous high-profile suicide bombing took place on September 5 when insurgents stormed an army base in Baghdad.