- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Soaring sectarian violence and government abuses have caused an alarming deterioration in religious freedom in Iraq, prompting a U.S. advisory panel for the first time to place it on a watch list of countries where worship is under severe threat.

Citing gross violations of the rights of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, as well as followers of numerous minority beliefs, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom added Iraq to its watch list yesterday. Violations included arbitrary arrests, torture and rape.

Iraq joins Afghanistan, Belarus, Egypt, Bangladesh, Cuba, Indonesia and Nigeria on the list. Their designation is a notch below the designation “country of particular concern,” which could make them subject to U.S. sanctions.

Three of the four Democratic appointees to the 10-member congressionally named commission differed with the Republican majority, arguing that conditions are so bad in Iraq that the commission should have taken that next step.

In the end, the panel, which reports to the White House, State Department and Congress, placed Iraq on the watch list with the understanding it will be recommended for “country of particular concern” status next year if improvements are not made.

At a press conference called to release the panel’s findings, commission Chairwoman Felice D. Gaer said “the consensus is the situation [in Iraq] is very serious, very grave.”

“Despite ongoing efforts to stabilize the country, successive Iraqi governments have not adequately curbed the growing scope and severity of human rights abuses,” the panel said, describing an “alarming and deteriorating situation for freedom of religion and belief.”

While noting that militias and terrorist groups commit a large proportion of sectarian violence and abuses, the panel said the Iraqi government bears substantial responsibility for the dismal religious freedom conditions.

“The Iraqi government has engaged in human rights violations through its state security forces, including arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without due process, extrajudicial executions and systematic torture,” it said.

Many of these target Iraq’s Sunni minority, both insurgents and innocent civilians, it said, adding that the government also condoned or tolerated “religiously based attacks and other religious freedom abuses carried out by armed [Shi’ite] factions” with official links.

“Given these ties, the Iraqi government’s failure to control such actors could ultimately constitute tolerance of egregious, ongoing and systematic violations of religious freedom,” the report said.

The panel’s findings and recommendations are not binding but are considered as the government prepares its annual report on international religious freedom each fall.

For example, the commission had long recommended that Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, be named a “country of particular concern” for its refusal to recognize any religion other than Islam. It was so designated in 2005 but received an executive waiver from sanctions.

The government also has resisted naming other counterterrorism allies, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, countries “of particular concern” despite the panel’s recommendations.

Other countries on that black list are China, Eritrea, Iran, Burma, North Korea, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

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