BAGHDAD – A car bomb exploded near a church as worshippers left Sunday Mass, killing at least four civilians and injuring 18 in one of several attacks on Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority.
The coordinated assault came as the Iraqi military predicted that insurgent attacks, though declining, could continue for a few years, raising the prospect of militant violence after the scheduled withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
Three Christians and one Muslim died in the bombing at around 7 p.m. near a church on Palestine Street in eastern Baghdad, said a police officer who was at the scene.
An official at al-Kindi hospital confirmed the death toll and said at least 18 people were injured.
Also Sunday, a bomb exploded near a convoy of American personnel that included U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill, though no one was injured.
State Department spokeswoman Joanne Moore said the bomb exploded as the convoy was traveling through Dhi Qar province in southern Iraq.
Violence is sharply down in the war that began with the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, but militants still carry out lethal attacks on a regular basis, some seemingly aimed at fomenting sectarian tension.
The U.S. military completed a withdrawal of combat forces from Iraqi cities to outlying bases last month as part of a plan to let Iraq take the lead on ensuring its own security.
Gen. Babaker B. Shawkat Zebari, the Iraqi army chief of staff, said insurgents once held sway in cities and provinces, but had been whittled down to a few highly dangerous cells that he expected would continue attacks for “a year or two or three.”
The army chief spoke after meeting Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, south of Baghdad. Al-Sistani enjoys massive support among Iraq’s majority Shiites, and the Iraqi military sees the backing of religious leaders as vital to its legitimacy and success.
Iraq’s Christians have often been attacked by Islamic extremists, and many have fled the country.
Two bombs that were planted in a church in western Baghdad exploded at midnight Saturday, causing some damage but no injuries.
Then three bombs exploded near other Baghdad churches at around 4:30 p.m., injuring eight civilians, police said.
The fatal bombing followed two and a half hours later.