On the first day after Christmas, a few more had to die:

Gunmen shot and killed five police officers at a checkpoint north of Baghdad on Monday, and six vehicle bombs exploded in the capital, leaving another five people dead and wounding more than 40. . . .

At least 19 people were killed across Iraq on Monday, a day after bloodshed claimed 18 lives, part of an increase in violence since a relative lull in attacks around the Dec. 15 vote.

A suicide car bomber slammed into a police patrol in the capital, leaving three dead, officials said, and a suicide motorcycle bomber rammed into a Shiite funeral ceremony, killing at least two people and wounding 26, said Maj. Falah Mohamadawi of the Interior Ministry.

Four other car bombs killed at least two people and wounded 15, officials said.

Gunmen killed five officers and wounded four at a police checkpoint 30 miles north of Baghdad, a morgue official in Baqouba said.

Nonetheless, Rummy says, what’s the hurry? We’ll leave — someday:

WASHINGTON — At every stop on his three-day tour of Iraq, U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld sent a similar message: the U.S. military is not rushing to get out, but it is getting out, nevertheless.

. . . Among small signs from Rumsfeld’s visit that point to increased confidence in security in Iraq: He spent two nights in the country.

Wow! He pulled an overnighter. That sure convinces me that everything is getting better all the time. Good to know Rummy sees us as leaving, eventually, though.

However, General Pace must not have gotten the memo that we’re pulling out of Iraq, or he wouldn’t have said this:

There’s more on the flip . . .

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace said Sunday that the number of U.S. troops in Iraq could increase next year, not decrease, if the insurgency continued.

Pace’s comments on “Fox News Sunday” suggested that the Pentagon’s plan to reduce the scale of American forces in Iraq, announced Friday by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, depended on several variables. . . .

The four-star Marine general said that any decision to withdraw or deploy additional troops in Iraq would depend mostly on whether the insurgency continued to launch deadly attacks against U.S.-led forces and friendly elements of the fledgling Baghdad government.

“So if things go the way we expect them to, as more Iraqi units stand up, we’ll be able to bring our troops down and turn over that territory to the Iraqis,” Pace said on the Christmas Day edition of the talk show. “But on the other hand, the enemy has a vote in this, and if they were to cause some kind of problems that required more troops, then we would do exactly what we’ve done in the past, which is give the commanders on the ground what they need. And in that case, you could see troop level go up a little bit to handle that problem.”

As for the new Iraqi government, it seems Ayatollah Sistani is at least making noises of compromise in the wake of the protests against the election that brought the Shi’ite religious parties an unprecedented victory:

NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) – Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Saturday called for calm and the creation of a government of national unity in the wake of the December 15 general elections, a senior official said.

Sistani called on Shiite-based religious parties — victorious according to initial results — to “work with other components of the Iraqi people to set up a government of national unity representative of all the country’s main (political) families,” national security advisor Muwaffaq al-Rubaie said after meeting the ayatollah.

How sincere is he? Who knows. I can’t even predict American politics based on public statements from our politicians, so I won’t even try to venture a guess as to what Sistani really intends. But perhaps the demonstrations really did get his attention. However, even if Sistani is sincere in calling for compromise with the Sunnis, it remains to be seen how much influence he has over the victorious Shi’a religious parties at this point in time. We’ll have to wait and see if anything positive comes out of it.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to those peace activist hostages? Oh yeah — they’re still missing:

Mr Kember, from Pinner, north-west London, was seized in Baghdad on November 26, with Canadians James Loney, 41, and Harmeet Singh Sooden, 32, and American Tom Fox, 54 after travelling to Iraq with the Canadian-based Christian Peacemaker Team.

The Swords of Righteousness Brigade, which has claimed responsibility for the kidnappings, had threatened to kill the group by December 10 unless Iraqi prisoners were released.

That deadline had been extended by two days but there has been no news of the hostages since it expired.

All I can say, is that my prayers are with their families.

As to the hopes for religious freedom and tolerance in Iraq, I give you this story from the Times of London, online edition:

IRAQIS gathered for Christmas behind Kalashnikovs yesterday. Midnight Mass was cancelled because of bombing fears and curfews, but the country’s rapidly dwindling Christian minority turned out in their thousands for early morning services.

Protected under Saddam, Christians once numbered between 600,000 and 700,000 in Iraq, but church officials say that about half have now fled, especially from the south, where militias linked to Iraq’s ruling parties have waged a three-year campaign to Islamise the country at gunpoint.

The worst attacks were by insurgents in central and northern Iraq in August last year, when bomb attacks on four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul killed a dozen Christians during Sunday services.

Priests have been threatened and killed, women abused in the street for not wearing veils and three months ago the entire lay leadership of Iraq’s main Anglican church were ambushed and killed.

Not exactly the sort of news were likely to hear about back in BushWorld, is it?

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