- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

12:49 p.m.

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” today. Violations cited include 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 would make them subject to possible 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 that it will be recommended for “country of particular concern” status next year if improvements are not made.

The countries on the blacklist include Saudi Arabia, China, Eritrea, Iran, Burma, North Korea, Sudan and Uzbekistan.

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.

At a press conference called to release the panel’s findings, commission Chairman 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 Shia factions” with official links.

The report said violations persisted and grew worse “contrary to the stated policy of Iraq’s senior national leadership and despite considerable security assistance from the U.S.-led coalition forces.”

The U.S. military said today that nearly 4,000 American soldiers have arrived in the capital to strengthen the 12-week crackdown aimed at quelling sectarian violence as bombings and shootings killed 12 persons across the country.

The developments came on the eve of an international conference on Iraq being held in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik at which the U.S. administration is expected to press hard for countries to forgive billions of dollars in Iraqi debt to help the Shi’ite-led government.

The U.S. military said the fourth of five brigades being sent to help Iraqi security forces as part of the crackdown arrived this week.

The 4th Brigade, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team from Fort Lewis, Wash., which includes about 3,700 soldiers, will be deployed in the Baghdad area and in northern Iraq, the military said. Officials want the rest in place by June, for a total in Iraq of 160,000.

When complete, the Baghdad security operation will include about 28,000 additional U.S. forces, including 20,500 combat soldiers and about 8,000 service members involved in support services such intelligence, military police and logistics.

A senior Interior Ministry official, meanwhile, said officials were trying to gain custody of Abu Ayyub Masri’s body amid widespread skepticism over claims that the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq had been killed.

Maj. Gen. Hussein Kamal declined to comment further, but a police official in Anbar province said Masri died when his explosives belt detonated during fighting but security forces could not retrieve the body because it was in a part of the desert controlled by the terror group.

U.S. authorities urged caution about the reports, saying they had not been confirmed and warning that even if the claim were true, the death of the shadowy Egyptian militant likely would not spell the end of the terror movement in Iraq.

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