U.S. Commission Split on Iraq Religious Freedom

Washington, USA - The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is split along party lines over whether to designate Iraq as a "country of particular concern" for religious freedom.

A recommendation to designate Iraq as a "country of particular concern" would be a blow to the Baghdad government of Prime Minister Maliki, putting Iraq on a list with some of the most repressive countries on the planet, such as North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. It could also prompt the next American president to cut off foreign aid to Iraq, an option under the International Religious Freedom Act that created the commission.

The commission yesterday sent a letter to Secretary of State Rice, saying, "We remain seriously concerned about religious freedom conditions in Iraq. The commission is traveling to the region later in the month and plans to issue its report and recommendation on Iraq in the near future, including a recommendation concerning the appropriate designation of Iraq this year under the International Religious Freedom Act."

The decision to delay the decision for a month was preceded by a bitter fight along Republican and Democratic lines over a draft chapter about Iraq in the panel's annual religious freedom report. According to sources familiar with the drafts, the first draft, favored by the panel's Democrats, contained a larger critique of the overall troop surge and counterinsurgency strategy supported by Senator McCain and President Bush. The Republicans on the commission drafted a dissent accusing the Democrats of partisanship.

The 10-person commission was on the verge of recommending the designation of Iraq until one Republican-appointed commissioner, Nina Shea, opted to support the decision to take another month.

"I have been very concerned with the plight of religious minorities in Iraq," Ms. Shea said in an interview. "This is one of the most intolerant places in the world for religious minorities. Half the Christians and half the Yazidis are believed to have fled Iraq since 2003. Six hundred thousand Christians have fled the country. There are about 500,000 Yazidis left. Eighty-five to 90% of the Mandeans have left," she said.

Ms. Shea added, though, that reliable data on this question was hard to come by. She said that was one of the reasons the commission would be traveling to Damascus this month, to conduct more interviews with persecuted religious minorities forced to flee Iraq. "I wasn't satisfied with our findings on this in the end," she said. "We want to go Syria and learn more. Part of the problem is there are not many good reports out there."

Ms. Shea was particularly worried about the status of Iraqi Christians who are forced to flee inside Iraq to internally displaced persons camps. "It is not a well-known fact that the government has instated a food ration coupon. When you become internally displaced, your food ration card is cut off. ... I think it is incumbent on the Maliki government to provide food for these people," she said.

The divide in the commission, which almost always reaches consensus recommendations, also comes in the middle of the political season. All three major candidates have advisers on the panel. For example, Commissioner Preeta Bansal is an adviser on religious freedom issues for Senator Obama. Commissioner Felice Gaer has donated money to Senator Clinton's campaign. Commissioner Leonard Leo of the Federalist Society is an informal adviser to the White House and conducts Catholic outreach for the Republican Party.

Ms. Shea would not discuss the original draft of the commission's recommendations on Iraq. But one source familiar with it said, "The draft did not want to credit U.S. forces with any success. Every time the draft said something about the surge, or improvements in Iraq, there was a qualification. There is no question you could construe the draft as attacking the war and the U.S. position in Iraq."

Ms. Bansal declined to comment. "We don't speak about internal commission deliberations until decisions are made public," she said.

While the outcome of the fight over Iraq inside the commission is in doubt, it may spur the White House to pressure the Iraqi government to provide more services for displaced Christians. "I think the Bush administration should be doing a lot more and should make keeping these small minorities in the country a priority," Ms. Shea said. "Historically Iraq has been a pluralistic mosaic and these minorities are generally well educated and politically moderate. They help advance democracy and freedom in that country. It will be a Pyrrhic victory to have stabilized Iraq only to find it fanatically intolerant of Christians and other non-Muslim religions."