Iraq status reportedly divides panel on religious freedom

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WASHINGTON (ABP)—An independent, nonpartisan federal panel’s failure to issue a recommendation to the State Department about Iraq reportedly is due to political division.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report and recommendations in early May. But conspicuously absent from the document was a recommendation on whether to black-list Iraq, which the commission has been eying warily since the United States overthrew dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Commission members at a public hearing on Iran in February.

“The commissioners said at the press conference several times that they haven’t finished their deliberations on Iraq and they will be traveling back to the region later this month to collect more information so they can make a considered decision,” said Judith Ingram, the panel’s spokesperson.

The report and recommendations—made to Congress, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—included information about religious-freedom conditions in dozens of countries around the world. Although it did not contain information about Iraq or a recommendation, the commissioners sent a separate letter to Rice mentioning their concern about that country.

Dire conditions

“The commission has been concerned about the particularly dire conditions affecting non-Muslims in Iraq, including Chaldo-Assyrian Christians, other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, Yazidis, and other minority religious communities, who face widespread violence from Sunni insurgents and foreign extremists, as well as pervasive violence, discrimination, and marginalization at the hands of the national government, regional governments, and para-state militias, including those in Kurdish areas,” the letter said.

“The commission also concluded that Iraq’s government was failing to curb the growing scope and severity of other religious-freedom violations,” the letter added, noting the commission’s decision last year to focus on Iraq’s deteriorating conditions for religious freedom. “We remain seriously concerned about religious freedom conditions in Iraq.”

The 1998 law that created the commission requires it to report annually on the status of religious liberty worldwide and to recommend that the State Department name nations that commit or tolerate “severe and egregious” violations of religious freedom as “Countries of Particular Concern.” Administration officials retain ultimate authority to make those designations and impose sanctions they deem appropriate.

Divided mostly along party lines

In addition, the commission has made a practice of producing a “watch list” of nations in danger of earning CPC status. Last year, it added Iraq to the watch list. In 2006, the panel added Afghanistan—another nation struggling to recover from a U.S.-led invasion—to the watch list. In 2007, the panel was divided—mostly along party lines—on whether to elevate Iraq to the watch list or to full CPC status.

But the New York Sun reported the division was even sharper and more partisan this year.

The 10-member panel has nine voting members. Of those presently serving, five commissioners were appointed by Republicans, and four by Democrats. According to the Sun, all Democrat-appointed commissioners supported elevating Iraq to CPC status this year, while most Republican-appointed commissioners opposed the designation and the report accompanying it.

A draft of the Iraq recommendation reportedly was harshly critical of the Bush administration’s military strategy in Iraq because of its lack of provisions for protecting religious minorities. Some Republican commissioners planned to issue a dissenting report accusing the panel’s Democrats of injecting partisanship into the process.

Plan to visit Syria

The commission’s members and staff almost always make recommendations by consensus and decline to speak publicly about ideological divisions on the panel. Ingram would only say that commissioners will make a recommendation following the trip to the region later. They will visit places, such as Syria, to which Iraqi religious minorities have been forced to flee.

Other than Iraq, the panel’s recommendations for CPC status and its watch list are unchanged from last year. Commissioners recommended the State Department designate Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam as CPCs.

Although the commission has long recommended most of those nations for CPC status, the State Department has not followed that recommendation for Pakistan and Turkmenistan, has been slow to take action against Saudi Arabia and, last year, removed Vietnam from its CPC list.

The commission’s report criticized those decisions, noting that religious-freedom violations are widespread in Pakistan and Turkmenistan. The commission also contended that Vietnam has not improved conditions enough to warrant its removal from the CPC list, which happened on the eve of Bush’s November 2006 trip there.

With the exception of Iraq, the panel’s watch list is the same as the last two years—Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia and Nigeria.

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