By Susan Crabtree – RCP Staff State Department officials have spent the last week working to reassure Christian and other religious-minority communities in Northern Iraq that the U.S remains committed to its post-Islamic State rebuilding efforts in the region.
The reassurance was needed after Kurdish officials and community leaders expressed alarm about long-term U.S. plans in the wake of the precipitous partial evacuation of American diplomats from Iraq in response to escalated tensions with Iran. Although Friday’s announcement that President Trump has ordered another 1,500 troops to the Persian Gulf to deter Iranian threats is welcome news to these communities, doubts remain about the U.S. commitment. (In addition, the 1,500 troops are far fewer than the 10,000 number the Pentagon floated earlier in the week, so questions remain as to whether the size of the deployment will be enough to defend against Iranian aggression.)Vice President Mike Pence has made it a personal mission to bolster the rebuilding of these beleaguered communities in Iraq and Syria after ISIS slaughtered Christians, Yezidis, and other religious minorities in what both the Obama and Trump administrations deemed attempted genocide.The vice president has repeatedly leaned on USAID Administrator Mark Green to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars are being channeled to that effort after complaints in 2017 that Obama-era and career State Department officials were thwarting the process. But foreign policy experts and advocates for the religious minorities have said bureaucratic forces at the State Department and the perilous security situation in Iraq have continued to undercut these efforts. USAID and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil, one of the diplomatic posts that ordered a partial evacuation of staff a week and a half ago, issued a joint statement Monday pledging to continue the rebuilding work despite the new security threat Iran is posing and the evacuation of U.S. diplomats. “The United States remains firmly committed to working with all minority groups in Iraq, including in the Iraqi Kurdistan region,” Consul General Steve Fagin and Special Representative for Minority Assistance Programs Max Primorac said in the statement. “We look forward to working with all Iraq’s religious minority groups to continue this important work to achieve our common goals to allow Iraqis of all denominations to return home in safety and dignity.” After the statement was issued, Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s Washington representative, praised it in a one-line tweet. “Much needed reassurance,” she said. Kurdistan, a semiautonomous zone controlled by Iraq’s ethnic minority, has served as a place of refuge for Christians and other religious minorities in the years after ISIS’ bloody rampage through Iraq left them homeless and displaced, their numbers decimated.Over the last two years, with the region stabilizing as ISIS’ forces have been forced out and eventually defeated, members of these religious minorities started leaving again to rebuild their lives in their previous communities in Iraqi’s northern Ninevah Plains where they and their ancestors had lived for more than a millennia. Long viewed as the cradle of Christendom, Iraq was home to as many as 1.5 million Christians before 2003. Today only roughly 200,000 remain. This year Christian families trying to return have faced new setbacks and a serious security threat from Iranian militias, which have established new footholds in Northern Iraq and have harassed Christians and other religious minorities, thanks to the Iraqi government’s tolerance of Iranian influence. Iranian-backed paramilitary units, known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces, have extorted Christian families and seized their property, building homes and education centers for Iraq’s Shiite majority in historically Christian towns in Iraq. The Trump administration’s decision to evacuate staff from U.S. posts in the Kurdistan region in the face of “specific threats” from Iranian activity has fueled new fears that the fragile rebuilding will collapse in a security vacuum if American forces permanently leave. Rahman and Primorac had met Monday with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State on Iran Andrew Peek, and afterward said the trio had a “good dialogue” that focused on the “political developments in Iraq and Kurdistan and security issues that affect various communities.” The Knights of Columbus, the Catholic service organization, has devoted $25 million to help with rebuilding and returning Christians, Yezidis and other religious minorities to Iraq and Syria. In mid-April the group’s president, Carl Anderson, visited Erbil and the surrounding region and penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed about the new threat the Iranian-backed militias posed. “Baghdad claims power over the Ninevah region, but in reality the militias control much of it,” Anderson wrote. “They have made life nearly unbearable for Christians attempting to return to towns like Batnaya, where the Popular Mobilization Forces have stripped Christian family homes of plumbing, wiring and other metal. … Iranian proxies now are conducting a program of colonization in the Iraqi sector.”Nina Shea, director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, calls the Iranian militia “takeover” of Christian towns “an insurmountable problem for progress in the Christian resettlement.” “I’ve heard from on-the-ground sources that Iran colonizes the half-empty towns with Iranians who have been issued [potentially] fraudulent Iraqi passports and other Shia from Iraq who have been paid by Iran” to move there, she told RealClearPolitics. “The Baghdad government seems indifferent.” Even though the U.S. has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military and other aid, the Trump administration has not sufficiently pressed the Iraqi prime minister to push out the Iranian-backed militias, she said. “Christians in Bartella have been attacked, robbed, threatened with guns and harassed by militias and their supporters, and they are living in fear,” she continued. “I am baffled about why the U.S. doesn’t use the leverage to get Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi to protect these vulnerable minorities: Under law, he is bound to protect his own citizens.”Pence’s efforts to channel U.S. taxpayer funds to faith-based groups to help rebuild the community have also produced limited results even though he touted them as a success in a speech in late March. “At Trump’s direction, for the first time ever, the United States of America is providing direct support to Christians and religious minorities in the Middle East to rebuild their communities,” Pence told students at Florida’s Ave Maria University. “We’re going to rebuild these communities. We’re going to work with our partners across the Ninevah Plain, Iraq, the Kurdish region of Iraq. And we’re going to see these communities come home.” Pence met with USAID’s Green on Thursday to discuss the issue, along with the ongoing political crisis in Venezuela. The vice president has repeatedly leaned on recalcitrant career and Obama-era USAID officials to try to ensure taxpayer dollars are being channeled to faith-based communities and other organizations best positioned to help these communities rebuild and recover.Congress also took action last year by passing a bill, sponsored by GOP Rep. Chris Smith, ensuring that faith-based organizations such as the Catholic Archdiocese of Erbil received taxpayer funds, overturning a policy of only allowing United Nations and secular NGOs to receive them. However, a representative from the Archdiocese of Erbil, the main intended beneficiary of the measure, says the archdiocese has not received any direct funding as a result of the legislation. “As of today we have still yet to receive any direct funding as a result of [the Smith measure] and have still not received any direct funding from USAID whatsoever,” Stephen Rasche, the attorney for the archdiocese, told RCP. Rasche said the only indirect U.S. government funding the archdiocese has received from USAID is $350,000 for two front-end loaders and two dump trucks for rubble removal, for which the archdiocese served as a “sub-agent pass-through” on a project run by a long-term USAID contractor and secular NGO. Rasche in late 2017 testified before Congress that the aid programs in Iraq are so mismanaged that some U.S. dollars are going to benefit Iraqis who took over areas that persecuted Christians fled from even though the United Nations said the project is aimed at helping Christian communities. Nearly a year ago, incensed over bureaucratic attempts to thwart a direct White House executive order on the issue, Pence dispatched Green to Iraq to ensure that funds were being used to save the Christian and Yezidi communities. He had waited months for USAID to carry out a promise he made to Christian groups at a dinner in October 2017. Although Pence is correct in saying that the U.S. has sent and/or committed roughly $340 million in aid to help in the rebuilding effort, critics point out that a large portion of that money has gone to the United Nations Development Program, which continues to maintain a policy of giving funds only to secular groups and not prioritizing victims of religious genocide over other refugee initiatives. Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics’ White House/national political correspondent.