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Iraq Villagers Fear Cross-Border Attack from Turkey

Turkish troops continue to hold their positions across from Iraq's northern border. Villagers on the Iraqi side are concerned they could be caught in the shelling if the Turkish military targets Kurdish rebels who have been conducting raids into Turkey. A number of those villagers are Christians who had fled the violence in Baghdad. VOA's Deborah Block has the story.

In Christian churches across Iraq's northern border, villagers are praying for peace. They hope Turkey will not cross into Iraq to root out rebels of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, who have been carrying out cross-border attacks into Turkey. The rebels are seeking a semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Turkey similar to Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

In the Christian border village of Qarola people know violence all too well. Two years ago, they faced persecution in their mostly Sunni neighborhood of Dora in Baghdad. And they fled back to their traditional homeland in Kurdistan, where hundreds of years ago, Christian missionaries had brought their faith to what is now northern Iraq.

Now the villagers keep an eye on a small Turkish military base near the village and wonder what will happen.

One man makes a meager living selling fruit and vegetables in Qarola. He says the Turkish army came close to the village, stayed one day and then left, and many people are afraid.

Qarola resident Salem Matti says there are no PKK rebels near the village, but if the Turks attack from over the border, he has no place to go. He says he has already experienced too much violence in Baghdad as Shi'ite Muslim militants fought to gain control of Dora.

He says the violence there began as militants bombed Christian churches in the Iraqi capital. He says they kidnapped and killed Christians, so he decided to leave.

Samir Yousif recalls his wife's brother being killed by Shi'ites in front of his four-year-old daughter. A year later, the child still shows signs of shock and cannot speak. Yousif says he owned a home and shop in Baghdad but had to flee after militants threatened to kill him.

He says it was difficult in Baghdad and now, in the village, he has no work and cannot take care of his family.

An estimated 70,000 Iraqi Christians have fled to the Kurdistan region. A Kurdistan government office helps Christians build small homes in Qarola and gives each family $100 a month. There are no jobs and people with cars say they cannot afford the gasoline to drive to work in Sakho, a city 25 kilometers away.

Many people rely on small plots of land to grow food. Years ago, after local Christians left for Baghdad seeking better opportunities, Kurds took over much of the land. Now they refuse to return it.

Salem Matti says even though security in Dora has improved and some Christian churches have reopened, he does not think he will go back.

He says if he can find a job in Qarola and the villagers can get their lands back, he will stay. He does not believe that Dora will remain calm. He says it is like the calm before the storm.

Matti says the village needs clean water, better roads, schools, and a health center. He says a new Catholic church built by Kurdistan's regional government is giving the people of Qarola renewed faith and hope.