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Under threat, Iraq's Christians flee city of Mosul

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Photo - FILE - In this Friday, June 27, 2014, file photo, an Iraqi nun, second from left, speaks with a Christian man who fled with his family from the Christian villages near Mosul, Iraq, at a school that was turned into a shelter for displaced Christian families, in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, Iraq. The Islamic State group gave Mosul's Christians until midday Saturday, July 19, 2014, to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. The vast majority of Christians fled. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
FILE - In this Friday, June 27, 2014, file photo, an Iraqi nun, second from left, speaks with a Christian man who fled with his family from the Christian villages near Mosul, Iraq, at a school that was turned into a shelter for displaced Christian families, in Ainkawa, a suburb of Irbil, Iraq. The Islamic State group gave Mosul's Christians until midday Saturday, July 19, 2014, to convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death. The vast majority of Christians fled. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla, File)
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BAGHDAD (AP) — The message played over loudspeakers gave the Christians of Iraq's second-largest city until midday Saturday to make a choice: convert to Islam, pay a tax or face death.

By the time the deadline imposed by the Islamic State extremist group expired, the vast majority of Christians in Mosul had made their decision. They fled.

They clambered into cars — children, parents, grandparents — and headed for the largely autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq or other areas protected by the Kurdish security forces. Their departure marks the latest — and perhaps final — exodus of Christians from the city, emptying out communities that date back to the first centuries of Christianity, including Chaldean, Assyrian and Armenian churches.

Iraq was home to an estimated 1 million Christians before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Since then, militants have frequently targeted Christians across the country, bombing their churches and killing clergymen. Under such pressures, many Christians have left the country. Church officials now put the community at around 450,000.

Most of Mosul's remaining Christians fled when the Islamic State group and an array of other Sunni militants captured the city on June 10 — the opening move in the insurgents' blitz across northern and western Iraq. As a religious minority, Christians were wary of how they would be treated by hard-line Islamic militants.

For those Christians who remained in the city, the order first made over loudspeakers on Thursday and later in leaflets passed out on the streets made clear their status under the extremist group's rule.

"When the Islamic State people took over Mosul weeks ago, they were nice to us at first and they used to knock our door and tell us that they mean no harm to the Christians in Mosul and they even gave us a mobile number just in case we are offended by anybody," Sahir Yahya, a Christian and government employee from Mosul, said Saturday. "This changed two days ago. The Islamic State people revealed their true savage nature and intention."

Yahya fled with her husband and two sons on Friday morning to the town of Qaraqoush, where they have found temporary lodging at a monastery.

"I know a lot of Christian families that left Mosul. We will always want to return to our houses and pray in our churches in Mosul, and eventually we will return, but not under the rule of the terrorist Islamic State," she said.

In Mosul, the Islamic State group has gradually imposed its strict interpretation of Shariah law. The militants banned alcohol and painted over street advertisements showing women's faces, for example, but have held off on strict punishments. More recently, the group began seizing the houses of Christian and Shiite Muslim families who fled Mosul and gave some of them to Sunni families uprooted from other areas, residents said.

Still, the edict calling on Christians to convert, pay tax or face death took many in the community by surprise.

"I went to the Islamic State religious court to make sure that the statement is authentic, and the man there told me that I should leave my house, car, money and properties behind," said Maan Abou, a 45-year-old retired army officer.

On Friday, Abou left his home and washing machine repair shop in Mosul behind and headed for Kirkuk with his wife and four children, as well his own parents and his sister's family.

"My wife and daughters wore the Islamic headscarf in order to deceive the Islamic State people at the checkpoints and make sure that our money and mobiles were not confiscated," he said. "All that I want is to return to the city that I grew up in and that I still have nice memories of. I have strong faith that we will return sooner or later because the cruel rule of Islamic State will not last forever."

The Islamic State group has vowed to continue its offensive on to Baghdad, although it appears to have crested for now after overrunning Iraq's predominantly Sunni areas. But the capital, while largely calm after a few weeks of panic, has not remained immune from the crisis.

On Saturday, a series of bombings, including three over a span of less than 10 minutes, killed at least 27 people, police officials said. The attacks, which hit the neighborhoods of Abu Dashir, Baiyaa, Jihad and Khazimiyah, are among the most significant in the capital since the militant campaign began.

Hospital officials in Baghdad confirmed the casualty figures. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief the media.

The Iraqi military's only major effort to roll back the militant gains has targeted the city of Tikrit, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of Baghdad. That campaign has sputtered, however, and the city remains in insurgent hands.

Northwest of Tikrit, heavy fighting has raged around an air base that previously served as a U.S. military facility known as Camp Speicher.

On Saturday, Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi denied reports that militants had captured the base, saying government troops repelled an attack on Friday and the air field remains under government control.

A resident of Tikrit, Ahmed Jassim, said by telephone that clashes were taking place around Speicher on Saturday, but "the gunmen are outside the camp." The center of Tikrit is still under insurgent control, and is being shelled by the Iraqi military, he said.

Meanwhile in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah, Iraq's ailing president, Jalal Talabani, returned to the country after more than 18 months abroad, state television said.

Talabani is wrapping up his second consecutive term as president, and is not eligible to run again. He suffered a stroke in late 2012, and was flown to Germany shortly afterwards for treatment and rehabilitation.

With Talabani's term set to expire, Iraqi political leaders are in talks to decide on a new president as part of broader negotiations over forming a new government. Parliament is expected to meet Wednesday to discuss potential candidates.

Two names have emerged as front-runners to succeed Talabani — former deputy prime minister Barham Saleh and the Kirkuk provincial governor Najimaldin Karim.

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Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.

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