In a new report on Iraq, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says religious minorities in Iraq face persecution. The commission, which recommends that the U.S. government designate Iraq a country of particular concern because of religious freedom violations, issued its findings in a news conference on Capitol Hill.
The commission says small minorities, such as Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis, continue to experience targeted violence, threats and intimidation, forcing many people to flee to other areas in Iraq or become refugees.
Its report says these minorities are even more vulnerable because Iraq's government has been unable to provide effective protection to religious communities or investigate violations.
"The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities," said Felice Gaer, who chairs the commission.
Among other things, the commission points to the recent killing of seven members of a Yazidi family who were shot and killed in northern Iraq.
Where Iraq's main divisions are concerned, sectarian problems persist despite what the commission says has been some "reconciliation" between Shiite and Sunni, with the report urging more progress.
Commission member Elizabeth Prodromou underscores one of the recommendations.
"To ensure that Iraqi government revenues are neither directed toward nor indirectly support any militia, para-state actor, or any other organization that is credibly charged with involvement in severe human rights abuses," she said.
The commission recommends suspension of any government personnel charged with involvement in sectarian violence; transparent and effective investigations; and expanding communal integration in Iraq's government and military.
But it is the smaller religious groups, lacking their own militia or tribal structures, that have become caught in the middle of what the report calls a struggle between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdistan Regional Government for control of northern areas.
"Minorities are facing extinction in Iraq, and I would like to see the Iraqi government doing more efforts to protect them," said commission member Imam Talal Eid.
"It doesn't take a whole lot of very armed and determined people to terrorize a vulnerable population if the government just steps aside and lets it happen," said commission member Nina Shea.
The commission expresses concern about upcoming provincial elections, pointing to what it calls the disenfranchisement four years ago of many non-Muslims in Nineveh province.
Vice Chairman Michael Cromartie points to the weakening of guarantees for minorities in Iraq's provincial elections law, and outlines commission recommendations for action by the U.S. government.
"That it lead an international effort to protect voters and voting places, and to monitor the elections," he said. "That it direct U.S. military and coalition forces where feasible and appropriate to provide heightened security for the elections, particularly in minority areas such as the Nineveh government where there were irregularities in previous elections."
The commission recommends that a special U.S. envoy be appointed to coordinate U.S. human rights policy in Iraq, while other proposals are aimed at helping the estimated four million Iraqi refugees and the internally-displaced.
Commissioner Richard Land says these include expanding U.S. and Iraqi government financing for refugees through the United Nations, and urging U.S. allies to increase their assistance, along with another step designed to assist religious minorities.
"Amend the U.S. refugee admissions program's new P-2 category to allow Iraq's smallest most vulnerable religious minorities direct access to the program," he said.
Four members dissented from the recommendation that Iraq, previously on the religious freedom watch list, now be designated a country of particular concern. They asserted that the Baghdad government's actions, complicity or willful indifference in violations were not sufficiently established.
Commissioners emphasize there is no disagreement when it comes to the plight of religious minorities, saying the main difference involves the question of whether Iraq's government has the capacity and willingness to act.
The commission's main overall message for the incoming Obama administration is that the United States must keep religious freedom and other fundamental human rights at the top of the agenda.