In a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee hearing on October 4th, former Congressman Frank Wolf and Dr. Denise Natali from the National Defense University testified on the future of Iraq’s minorities, after the fall of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, focusing on affected minorities such as Syriac Christians and Yazidis, in the northern regions of Iraq.
Both began their opening statements by discussing the different stabilizing challenges that political and minority groups face, which are presently effecting Iraq. Some of the main points of discussion were the disputes between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government as well as the proliferation of Iranian-backed militia groups.
Iraq’s ethnic minorities are fractured, and often the government and militia groups attempt to exploit the religious differences within the population. As Dr. Natali stated, “religion also overlaps with ethnicity, language, and geography” complicating the minority populations even more.
During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing each scholar laid out their recommendations for Iraq.
Mr. Wolf suggested that a Presidential Memorandum should be issued directing the State Department and USAID to immediately address the needs of Christian and Yazidi communities in the northern regions of Iraq identified by Secretary Tillerson as having been targeted for genocide.
Wolf also urged that a position should be established for an inter-agency coordinator to ensure safety for minorities to coordinate U.S. foreign policy around the issues, and that Congress should immediately pass H.R. 390, the bipartisan Iraq and Syria Genocide Emergency Relief and Accountability bill, to hold accountable for individuals who committed crimes of genocide and terrorism in the region.
Wolf also discussed how to establish security for the minorities of people returning to Iraq which were displaced by the Islamic State as well as from the fighting of Iraqi forces in the region, suggesting the need to train up local police.
Wolf stressed the role played by religious charity organizations including Samaritans Purse, Knights of Columbus, and World Vision who are already established in the region, as the be best resource to assist minorities through their camps and by giving aid directly.
Historically Middle-Eastern Christians have feared entering United Nations refugee camps where they are often targeted.
Dr. Natali proposed that the United States needs to support local minority rights in conjunction with the Iraqi constitution, reinforce a sovereign civil state and Iraqi institutions, and mediate disputed territories.
She also suggested that the government should be structured to work from Baghdad then to administer policy to provinces, instead of going to Baghdad and then the Kurdish regional government. Her aims to accomplish these tasks are through the support of a singular Iraqi state.
Another area of tension in the region is the Kurdish independence referendum which was held on September 25th and voted for overwhelming support of an independent Kurdistan. With tension from the Iraqi, Turkish and Iranian governments surrounding the KRG, heightens the potential for conflict.
Potential arising conflicts for the Kurds would include the Iraqi-Shia militias which are backed by the Iranians, and the Turks and Iranians placed on the border of the KRG evoking military pressure to move tanks and other weapons tests closer to the border. This once again causes Christians and Yazidis to become caught in the cross fire of the conflict.
Senator Rubio stated that “we are not asking the KRG to abandon independence but ask to take steps to lower the rhetoric” He remarked that Baghdad also needs to take some steps to show a desire to open dialog on this topic in the future to lower tensions because there are many other issues at play currently for U.S. strategic advantage.
As Iraq faces a multitude of challenges from ethnic and religious minorities, Iran is an overarching and provocative influence on the instability of the region. As Iran promotes groups which inhibit minority populations in Iraq, it promotes groups such as Hezbollah, Shia backed militias, and others regional forces which inhibits the rights of the minorities.