THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BAGHDAD – Iraq’s prime minister sought safeguards Sunday for small religious communities in this mainly Muslim country as Christians protested parliament’s decision to stop setting aside seats for minorities on provincial councils. In Baghdad, a series of explosions struck mostly Shiite areas, killing at least 32 people and wounding nearly 100, police said. The attacks appeared aimed at reviving sectarian tensions that once threatened to plunge the nation into civil war. Parliament last week approved a new law mandating elections in most of Iraq’s 18 provinces.
But the law removed a system that reserved a few legislative seats for Christians and other religious minorities.
Lawmakers cited a lack of census data to determine what the quotas should be. But many Christians saw the move as an effort to marginalize their community.
“I think that some political groups are pushing the remaining Christians to leave Iraq,” worshipper Afram Razzaq-Allah said after services at a Catholic church in Baghdad. “They want us to feel that we are no longer Iraqis.”
In a letter sent to parliament Sunday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appealed to the legislators and the electoral commission to restore the quota system.
“The minorities should be fairly represented in the provincial councils, and their rights should be guaranteed,” al-Maliki wrote.
Christians by the hundreds staged street protests after Sunday church services in and around Mosul, a northern city where many of the country’s Christians live.
“This is an unjust decision, and it affects our rights as Christians,” Matti Galia, a local politician, said at a rally in Mosul. “We are original citizens in this country.”
Iraq’s Christians have been targeted by Muslim militants since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, with priests, churches and Christian-owned businesses attacked. The violence has led many Christians to flee the country.
Ambassador calls for patience
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker on Sunday accused Iran of trying to interfere with a new security pact between Iraq and the United States, and said Americans need to view Iraq with “a sense of strategic patience” because the stakes in the region are so high.
The 37-year veteran diplomat, interviewed by The Associated Press at his embassy in Baghdad, is in the middle of tough negotiations with Iraqi officials to define the basis for a continuing U.S. military presence in the country beyond the end of this year.
The talks on the military pact have hit an impasse recently over U.S. insistence on retaining sole legal jurisdiction over American troops and differences over a schedule for the departure of the U.S. military.
Iraqi officials have said that they want all foreign troops out by the end of 2011.