United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
December 16, 2008
Iraq Report – 2008
Religious Freedom Conditions
Violence and Abuses Against Non-Muslim Minorities
Minorities in Disputed Areas
Intra-Muslim Sectarian Violence and Abuses
Shi’a Violence Against Sunnis
Sunni Violence Against Shi’a
Violence and Abuses Against Other Vulnerable Groups
The Plight of Iraqi Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons
The Extent and Causes of the Crisis
Protection and Assistance
U.S. Government Policies toward Iraqi Refugees and IDPs
Prior Commission Action
Recommendations for U.S. Policy
In view of the ongoing severe abuses of religious freedom and based on the Iraqi government’s toleration of these abuses as described in this report, particularly abuses against all of Iraq’s most vulnerable and smallest religious minorities, the Commission recommends that Iraq should be designated a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). [*]
Although there has been a substantial reduction in violence in Iraq since the Commission reported last in May 2007, there has been continued targeted violence, as well as threats and intimidation against persons belonging to religious minorities, and other egregious religiously-motivated abuses are continuing and widespread. The lack of effective government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities.
While there has been some reconciliation between Shi’a and Sunni Iraqis, there are still concerns regarding attacks and tense relations between these groups. Moreover, the situation is particularly dire for Iraq’s smallest religious minorities, including ChaldoAssyrian Christians, other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis. These groups do not have militia or tribal structures to protect them and do not receive adequate official protection. Their members continue to experience targeted violence and to flee to other areas within Iraq or other countries, where the aforementioned minorities represent a disproportionately high percentage among Iraqi refugees. These communities report that their numbers in Iraq have substantially diminished, and that their members who have left the country have not to date showed signs of returning in significant numbers. Legally, politically, and economically marginalized, these small minorities are caught in the middle of a struggle between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the central Iraqi government for control of northern areas where their communities are concentrated. The combined effect of all of this has been to endanger these ancient communities’ very existence in Iraq.
The Commission unanimously recommends that the U.S. government should take a number of specific steps described on pages 32 – 39 of this report, that are designed to ensure:
• safe and fair provincial elections,
• security and safety for all Iraqis,
• the prevention of abuses against religious minorities is a high priority,
• the KRG upholds minority rights,
• U.S. financial assistance is refocused,
• religious extremism is countered and respect for human rights is promoted, and
• the situation of internally displaced persons and refugees is effectively addressed.
Following the fall of the Ba’athist regime led by Saddam Hussein and brief period of rule by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, the United States returned sovereignty to the Iraqi people in June 2004 under the terms of UN Security Council Resolution 1546. That resolution endorsed the formation of an interim Iraqi government, which was then followed by parliamentary elections in January 2005. Boycotted by many Sunni groups, those elections brought a Shi’a majority government to power in coalition with Kurdish parties. United States and foreign military forces subsequently remained in Iraq at the Iraqi government’s invitation to support the new regime and help fight international terrorism. 
The outcome of the 2005 parliamentary elections reinforced Kurdish autonomy from Iraq’s central government while at the same time hardening sectarian divisions between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’a communities. These divisions quickly evolved into sustained armed clashes between Sunni and Shi’a factions and widespread, religiously-motivated attacks on Iraqi civilians, particularly after the significant February 2006 bombing of Samarra’s Al-Askari Mosque. By March 2007, sectarian violence in Iraq had grown so severe that some analysts described the situation as a civil war. 
Iraqis from many religious communities, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, have suffered violent attacks in the sectarian strife that has engulfed Iraq, but those from Iraq’s smallest religious minorities-particularly ChaldoAssyrian Christians, other Christians, Sabean Mandaeans, and Yazidis-have been among the most vulnerable. These groups were also targets of harassment and abuse during Saddam’s era and their situation has grown more severe. The small religious communities do not have militia or tribal structures to provide them some level of protection. Indeed, their members appear to comprise a disproportionately large number of the multitude of refugees who have fled Iraq in the past several years.
As of mid-2007, when the Commission last reported on Iraq, the country was rife with growing levels of sectarian violence, including religiously-motivated killings, abductions, beatings, rape, intimidation, forced resettlement, torture, and attacks on pilgrims, religious leaders, and holy sites. Since 2007, actions and policies taken by the American and Iraqi governments and militaries have substantially diminished sectarian violence between the two major Islamic communities, Sunnis and Shi’as, and have led to progress in their political reconciliation. Serious concerns still remain, however, regarding abuses affecting each of these communities.
In contrast, the situation of the smallest religious minorities in Iraq has continued to deteriorate. Members of these small minorities continue to experience targeted attacks and to flee the country or to other areas within it. Aside from the Nineveh Plains and other areas in northern Iraq, much of the country, including Baghdad, has largely been emptied of Christians and other non-Muslims. Yet even in their northern ancestral homelands, these minorities remain subject to religiously-motivated extremist attacks and violence; compounding this are reports of an ongoing pattern of official discrimination and neglect at the hands of Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. The cumulative effect of this violence, forced displacement, discrimination, marginalization, and neglect is a serious threat to these ancient communities’ continued existence in Iraq, where they have lived for millennia. This threat to Iraq’s smallest religious minorities poses a grave threat to Iraq’s future as a diverse and free society.
This report sets forth the conclusions and recommendations of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) with respect to violations of religious freedom conditions in Iraq, as well as U.S. policy toward the country. The report is based on Commission travel, interviews, briefings, and other activities undertaken in 2007 and 2008.
In July and September 2007, the Commission held public hearings on Capitol Hill focusing on the status of religious freedom in Iraq. The first hearing examined threats to Iraq’s smallest religious minorities. Commissioners heard testimony from representatives of Iraq’s Chaldean, Assyrian, and Sabean Mandaean communities, including a former Iraqi Minister of Human Rights. The hearing also featured an account from the Reverend Canon Andrew White, Vicar of Baghdad’s only functioning ecumenical Christian parish, whose testimony included a description of the grave danger posed to the tiny remnant of Iraq’s once sizable Jewish community. Statements were also made by Reps. Christopher Shays (R-CT) and Anna Eshoo (D-CA).
The second hearing focused on links between sectarian violence and the Iraqi refugee crisis. Commissioners heard testimony from security analysts, as well as from the office of the UN High Commission for Refugees, Assistant Commissioner for Operations Judy Cheng-Hopkins and Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration Ellen R. Sauerbrey. Commissioners also took statements from Senators Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), as well as Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY).
In November 2007, Commission staff traveled to Jordan and Sweden, and in March and May 2008, Commissioners traveled to Jordan, Iraq, and Syria to meet with Iraqi asylum seekers, refugees, and internally displaced persons (IDPs), including members of Iraq’s smallest religious minorities, and various Iraqi and U.S. government officials. Seeking to gather information on religious freedom conditions and religiously-motivated violence in Iraq, the Commission learned from scores of officials, experts, and refugees about the circumstances under which displaced Iraqis fled their previous homes, as well as about the status and treatment of members of religious minorities in Iraq. The Commission also met with representatives of international and non-governmental organizations that are assisting asylum seekers, refugees, and IDPs. In Erbil, Iraq, the Commission met with members of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and local government officials, representatives of local religious communities, human rights organizations, and political parties. The Commission also met with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and other U.S. officials, to discuss religious freedom issues in both Kurdish-dominated areas and other parts of Iraq. In April 2007, Commission staff met with Iraqi Christian asylum seekers in Detroit.
In preparing this report, the Commission also received briefings from Iraq experts; met with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, other U.S. government officials, representatives from international organizations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and universities; had several video conferences with key U.S. and Iraqi government officials and minority community leaders in Baghdad;  and reviewed reports on Iraq from the U.S. government, UN agencies, NGOs, the press, and other sources. Additionally, the Commission’s previous findings and reports were consulted.
Religious Freedom Conditions
When the Commission last reported on Iraq in May 2007, the country was wracked with growing levels of sectarian violence, including religiously-motivated killings, abductions, beatings, rape, intimidation, forced resettlement, torture, and attacks on pilgrims, religious leaders, and holy sites.  Since that time, there has been a sizable drop in inter-communal violence between Sunni and Shi’a communities in Iraq, which can be attributed to some or all of the following factors: the “surge” in the number of U.S. troops and resulting increased security and counter-insurgency efforts; the improving abilities of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF); the results of what is reported to be a secret U.S. program to identify and kill terrorist and insurgent leaders; the effects of the Sunni “Awakening”/Sons of Iraq movement and its political cooperation due to U.S. financial support; the ceasefire imposed by Shi’a cleric Muqtadeh al-Sadr on his Mahdi Army militia; and the de facto sectarian partition of neighborhoods, which in some cases resulted from forced displacement and in others from anticipatory, voluntary flight. 
According to the Pentagon’s most recent quarterly report on security in Iraq, released in late September 2008, overall civilian deaths countrywide in June through August 2008 had declined 77 percent from the same period in 2007, with June recording the lowest monthly death rate on record since the war began.  Although ethno-sectarian killings increased slightly in July and August from the June statistics, they were reported to be 96 percent lower than in the same period in 2007. Total attacks and other security incidents were at their lowest levels since early 2004. Nevertheless, the report cautioned that despite reduced numbers, the situation remains “fragile, reversible, and uneven,” and correctly noted that Iraq is still in the throes of “a communal struggle for power and resources.” This report and others identify the major continuing threats to security in Iraq as including the actions of al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and other extremist and insurgent elements, including Iranian-backed militias; the integration of the Sons of Iraq into the army, police or other jobs; the status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas;  the return of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs); and the lack of government services and economic opportunity. While violence could flare up at any time, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others warn that it is particularly probable in the run-up to provincial elections, scheduled for January 31, 2009. 
According to Iraqi government statistics, for the months since the Pentagon report, 359 Iraqi civilians were killed in September 2008, compared to 382 in August and 884 in September of last year.  In October 2008, 278 civilians were killed, which Iraqi officials said was the lowest monthly statistics since before the February 2006 Samarra bombings, and 296 were killed in November, when there was an uptick in bombings in Baghdad. 
Violence and Abuses Against Non-Muslim Minorities
Iraq’s non-Muslim religious minorities-particularly Christians, Mandaeans, and Yazidis-have suffered religiously-based attacks and other abuses, and have fled the country, at rates far disproportionate to their numbers, seriously threatening these communities’ continued existence in Iraq. Lacking militias, and in the case of the Mandaeans unable to defend themselves for religious reasons, they are easy prey for extremists and criminals, and they do not receive adequate protection from the authorities. As in earlier years, they also are caught in the middle of a Kurdish-Arab struggle for control of disputed northern areas where the minorities are concentrated and have been targeted because of this.
In addition to lacking security, these communities are legally, politically, and economically marginalized. In the January 2005 elections, many non-Muslims in Nineveh governorate-the northern province with the largest numbers of these groups-were disenfranchised due to fraud, intimidation, and the refusal by Kurdish security forces to permit ballot boxes to be distributed.  The Iraqi Constitution, adopted in late 2005, gives Islam a preferred status, providing a potential justification for abuses and discrimination against non-Muslims, and constitutional reform efforts have been stalled for several years. Most recently, the provincial elections law passed in late September 2008 by the Iraqi parliament was, at the last minute, stripped of Article 50, a provision that would have guaranteed a set number of seats in provincial councils to minorities. Although an amendment was later adopted, it set aside fewer seats than the original provision, leading minority leaders to denounce the law. Members of these groups also report that their communities are discriminated against in the provision of essential government services and reconstruction and development aid.
In 2003, there were estimated to be as many as 1.4 million Christians in Iraq, including Chaldean Catholics, Assyrian Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Syriac Orthodox, Armenians (Catholic and Orthodox), Protestants, and Evangelicals. Today, it is thought that only 500,000 to 700,000 indigenous Christians remain in the country.  Moreover, while Christians and other religious minorities represented only approximately three percent of the pre-2003 Iraqi population, they constitute approximately 15 and 20 percent of registered Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, respectively, and Christians account for 35 and 64 percent, respectively, of all registered Iraqi refugees in Lebanon and Turkey. Christian leaders have warned that the result of this flight may be “the end of Christianity in Iraq.” 
The most recent attacks took place in the northern city of Mosul in late September/early October 2008, when at least 14 Christians were killed and many more report they were threatened, spurring some 13,000 individuals to flee to villages east and north of the city  and an estimated 400 families to flee to Syria.  The United Nations has estimated that this number is half of the current Christian population in Mosul. Those who met with displaced Christians were told that Christians had received threatening text messages and had been approached by strangers asking to see their national identity cards, which show religious affiliation. At the time of this writing, the attackers had not been identified, and Christian leaders had called for an international investigation. As of early November, some of the displaced reportedly were beginning to return to Mosul,  but a November 11 attack in which two Christian girls were killed, their mother injured, and their home bombed created new fears and slowed this trend. Reportedly, returnees and those who remained in Mosul fear future attacks against their community and maintain a low profile. 
The UN recently reported that from January through June 2008 it received 17 reports of attacks and kidnappings, including 10 killings, of Christians throughout Iraq.  In February, Christian missionaries from the Norwegian Churches Organization were kidnapped from Basra’s Al Sakhra Church.  In July 2008, the Assyrian International News Agency (AINA) reported that a group called “The Battalion of Just Punishment, Jihad Base in Mesopotamia,” which is thought to be affiliated with AQI, was sending threatening letters to Christians in the Mosul area.  On September 2, two Christians were kidnapped and killed in Mosul, apparently in separate incidents, including a doctor whose family paid a ransom of $20,000. 
According to Christian advocacy groups, since 2004, more than 40 churches and church buildings in Iraq have been destroyed, many in coordinated attacks, and others have been looted or occupied by Muslims.  The non-governmental organization, Minority Rights Group International, has reported that many of these attacks have been carried out during services to achieve maximum impact.  On August 1, 2004 four churches in Baghdad and one in Mosul were attacked simultaneously by the “Committee of Planning and Follow-up in Iraq” in retribution for what the group perceived to be “crusading” by the Christians and Americans.  In January 2006, churches in Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk and the Vatican embassy were attacked on the same day, killing 16 and injuring 20 people. As recently as January 8, 2008, six church buildings in Mosul and Baghdad were bombed in a single day. These coordinated attacks fell on Epiphany and Orthodox Christmas Eve, feast dates when many Catholic and Syriac Orthodox Iraqis hold baptisms.  Some churches in Baghdad are now guarded by privately hired security firms,  and many have taken down their crosses. 
Christian leaders have been murdered, tortured, kidnapped, and beaten as a means to intimidate the entire community.  There have been reports that in some particularly dangerous areas, some priests stopped wearing their clerical garb for fear of attack.  On February 29, 2008, unidentified gunmen abducted the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul, Paulos Faraj Rahho, and killed two of his aides. Archbishop Rahho’s body was found in a shallow grave two weeks later. In early April 2008, an Assyrian Orthodox priest, Youssef Adel, was shot and killed in a drive-by attack in Baghdad. 
Christian laypersons also have been targeted, and congregations are reported to be less than half their pre-2003 levels, either because Christians have left the area or because those who remain are too afraid to attend church. Many churches have closed. In his testimony before the Commission in July 2007, Rev. Canon White, Vicar of St. George’s Anglican Church in Baghdad, recounted that:
Two weeks ago, I sat down with my congregation … and I said to them, tell me your story, what’s happened in the past week? And the people went through what had happened, and I realized that 36 of my congregation in that past week had been kidnapped. None of them had been returned. The only one we managed to get back was one of our lay pastors, because we had found sufficient money to pay the ransom for his return. 
Although some observers have argued that Iraqi Christians are targeted for kidnapping because of their wealth, not their religious identity, relief groups have reported that, in many of these cases, a religious motivation is clear from the threats and ransom notes.  The Commission was told of and shown such threats and notes in its meetings with Iraqi Christian refugees in Jordan. Christians also have reported, including to the Commission, being targeted because, as Christians, they are considered “infidels” or are perceived to be affiliated with, or at least sympathetic to, the U.S. “Crusaders” who invaded Iraq. 
Extremists also have tried to enforce restrictive forms of Islamic behavior and dress on Christians. Christian women have been forced to wear the hijab and some forced to leave their positions of employment because of their failure to do so. Women have been threatened and even killed for socializing publicly with men who are not their relatives.. Businesses that are considered “un-Islamic,” including alcohol shops, beauty salons, cinemas, and video stores, and their Christian owners, have been intimidated and attacked. The State Department reports that as recently as February 26, 2008, a bomb exploded in front of a liquor store in Baghdeda, an Assyrian town.  Iraqi officials have reported that 95 percent of businesses that sold alcohol in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra (businesses commonly owned by Christians and Yazidis) have been closed.  Such reports were confirmed to the Commission on its trip to Jordan, where minority refugees told of being threatened because of their ownership of certain types of businesses. These individuals fled the country after receiving threatening letters and phone calls, and in some cases, after surviving violent attacks (including bombings) of their businesses. 
Threats and attacks have forced many Christians from their homes. A primary example of forced displacement can be found in Baghdad’s previously mixed neighborhood of Dora, where reportedly only 300 Christian families remained in the summer of 2007, out of the 2,000 that had lived there previously.  One news report described the situation in Dora:
…a fatwa was issued and letters [were] distributed to Christians in the Dora neighborhood of Baghdad read[ing], “To the Christian, we would like to inform you of the decision of the legal court of the Secret Islamic Army to notify you that this is the last and final threat. If you do not leave your home, your blood will be spilled and your family will be killed.” Christians in Dora also report posters being put up in the neighborhood stating that Christians are opposed to Islam, they are infidels, and warning women that unless they wear the hijab they would have their heads cut off. 
According to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI), militants from extremist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and the so-called “Mujahideen al-Dora,” traveled door to door in the neighborhood, presenting Christians with the option of vacating their homes, paying the jizyah (a protection tax required to be paid by non-Muslims under some interpretations of Islamic law), or converting to Islam.  Similar threatening notes were shown to the Commission by refugees in Amman. In his July 2007 testimony before the Commission, Rev. Canon White stated that many Christians who fled their homes after receiving threats to convert, leave or die had nowhere else to go, and as a result, “a large number of Assyrians are now literally living on the church floors of some of the Assyrian churches in Baghdad.” 
Donny George, the former Director General of the Iraqi Museums and Chairman of the State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, testified before the Commission that:
After the Americans toppled Saddam’s power in April 2003, everybody started breathing the freedom and waiting for democracy to start and everyone as an Iraqi should have his rights. But the infiltration of people coming from the countries surrounding Iraq made it impossible to start the real process of improving the situation in the country. Besides fighting each other, the Sunnis and Shi’as, a large campaign started against the Christians. At home, at my parents’ place in Dora, we started hearing that the Muslim extremists will do to the Christians exactly what they did to the Jews in 1948. This meant complete cleansing of the people from the county. We received a letter in an envelope together with bullet of a Kalashnikov; the letter threatened my younger son, Martin, accusing him of cursing Islam and teasing Muslim girls. They mentioned that they suspected that his father, myself, works with the Americans, so he was ordered to write a letter of apologize (sic) for them, (the Brigades of the Martyr Zarqawi), and a fine of one thousand U.S. dollars, to be put in an envelope and dropped in a certain place in Dora, otherwise, the next day he will be kidnapped and beheaded immediately. When I heard that, I asked my elder son to get my mother, my two sisters and Martin and bring them to our flat in another part of Baghdad, and in the afternoon I arranged for the letter and the money to be dropped, so that they will not come after my son. In the coming few days, I heard that the same thing had happened to 12 Christian families in the same area of Dora, same kind of letter and the same kind of accusations. They all paid and left the area, leaving everything behind, houses, properties. Now Dora is completely empty of any Christian Assyrians, and almost all the churches there had been bombed and burnt.. 
More recently, however, several official actions and related events have been taken to address these negative trends for Christians and the other small minorities. In 2007, some Christians openly celebrated Christmas Mass in Baghdad.  The State Department also reported that in 2007, a cross was reinstalled on one of the major churches in Dora,  and the Iraqi press has reported that 45 Christian families have returned to the neighborhood.
On several occasions in 2007 and 2008, including after the late September/early October attacks in Mosul, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki met with Christian leaders to express support and pledged to protect Iraqi Christians.  In the wake of the Mosul violence, the Prime Minister also dispatched additional police officers to that area. In March 2008, when the Chaldean Archbishop of Mosul was kidnapped, Prime Minister al-Maliki stated that securing Archbishop Rahho’s release was a “top priority” of the Iraqi government. After the Archbishop was found dead, the Prime Minister condemned the killing.  A suspect in the killing was arrested shortly thereafter, and by mid-May, the Iraqi Central Criminal Court had convicted the suspect and sentenced him to the death penalty.. 
In June 2008, the Prime Minister established a committee to advise him on minority issues, reportedly including Christians and Yazidis, although the committee’s specific membership, duties, and powers remain undisclosed. However, in recent meetings with representatives of Iraqi religious minority communities, the Commission was told that many in these communities view this committee as illegitimate because its members were selected by the Prime Minister, not by the communities themselves, and they feel that its members do not actively advance minority concerns. Additionally, the Mandaean representative with whom the Commission met was completely unaware of the Prime Minister’s committee or if his community is represented on it.
Also in June 2008, Iraqi Vice President Tareq Al-Hashemi met with Mandaean spiritual leader Skeikh Ganzabra Sattar Jabbar Al-Hilo al-Zahrony.  On July 1, the Ministry of Human Rights issued a report listing the number of deaths in different minority communities caused by targeted or indiscriminate attacks between 2003 and the end of 2007, as well as the numbers of internally displaced persons for each minority.  This is the first official Iraqi government public report on the plight of minorities in post-Saddam Iraq.
Finally, in the wake of the September passage of the provincial elections law, majority politicians, including Prime Minister al-Maliki and Nassar al-Rubaiy’i, the leader of the Sadrist bloc, as well as some senior Muslim religious leaders, expressed concern about the deletion of Article 50, the minority representation provision. However, as mentioned previously, the replacement clause that was later adopted set aside fewer seats for minorities than the deleted provision, causing dissatisfaction among the minorities.
Sabean Mandaeans, who are followers of John the Baptist, have seen their small community in Iraq decimated, with almost 90 percent reportedly having either fled the country or been killed.  Reportedly, only 3,500 to 5,000 Mandaeans (including 150 families in Baghdad) are now left in Iraq. Of the 28 Mandaean religious leaders who were in the country during the Saddam Hussein era, only five remain.  The community’s highest spiritual leader fled to Syria following direct threats to his life.  The few Mandaeans who remain in the central and southern parts of the country are said to hide their religion. The Commission was told that some felt pressured to, and eventually did, change their religion. 
Like Christians, Mandaeans in Iraq have experienced threats, violence, forced expulsion from their homes and businesses, and violent attacks on their houses of worship and religious leaders. According to the Mandaean Human Rights Group, from April 2003 to March 2007, 144 Mandaeans were killed in Iraq, 254 were kidnapped, 238 were threatened or assaulted, 11 reported being raped, and there were 35 reports of forced conversion to Islam.  From January 2007 to February 2008 alone, the Mandaean community in Iraq suffered 42 killings, 46 kidnappings, 10 threats, and 21 attacks.  Speaking before the Commission in July 2007, Suhaib Nashi of the Mandaean Associations Union recounted a number of incidents in 2007 in which cars and buses were stopped by extremists and the Mandaeans were taken aside and killed on the side of the road while the Muslims were free to continue on their journey. 
Other human rights monitors also have reported abduction, rape, forced conversion, and forced marriage among young Mandaean women.  Like Christian women, Mandaean women have been forced to wear the hijab. Mandaeans report that their boys have been kidnapped and forcibly circumcised, a sin in the Mandaean religion.  Mandaean-owned jewelry shops and their owners have been attacked for being “un-Islamic.” Mandaeans in Iraq also have experienced violent attacks on their places of worship and leaders.. For example, on July 21, 2007, militants machine-gunned a Mandaean temple in Umara, injuring three religious leaders. Some Mandaeans reported to the Commission that they were too afraid to go to their temples.  Minority Rights Group International also has reported efforts to forcibly convert Mandaean leaders as a means to force them to encourage other community members also to convert. 
More recently, on September 26, the Mandaean Associations Union reported that earlier in the month, masked gunmen attacked a Mandaean family’s shop in Baghdad, killing the owner, his brother, and his eight-year-old son, and looting the shop.  On February 2, 2008, 10 members of a Mandaean family in Kut were killed in a rocket attack. In Syria, the Commission met with family members of the deceased and was told that this family, the only Mandaean family in Kut, had received many threats and warnings from extremists before the attack. 
Mandaeans are pacifists whose religion prohibits them from carrying weapons or taking another person’s life; as such, they have no means of self-defense and are therefore especially vulnerable. In addition, one can become Mandaean only by being born into the religion. Mandaean leaders have told the Commission that they are fearful that their ancient religion, language, and culture will disappear, not only in Iraq, but worldwide.  In 2006, the UN Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) listed Mandaean as one of the world’s languages in danger of disappearing. The Mandaean Associations Union, Mandaean leaders, refugees, and asylum seekers have universally told the Commission that they do not see any future for their community in Iraq. All of the Mandaean refugees and asylum seekers with whom the Commission spoke said that they do not plan ever to return to Iraq. Instead, they would like the entire community to be resettled to a third country, so that their religion, language, and culture can survive. 
Almost the entire Yazidi population lives in northern Iraq, in the governorates of Dahuk and Nineveh. Like Mandaeans, Yazidis as a community are particularly vulnerable to annihilation because one can only be born into the Yazidi religion.. 
Yazidis, Yazidi leaders, and Yazidi sites in Iraq have suffered threats and attacks since at least 2004.  Yazidis, whose religion is thought to be an derivative of Zoroastrianism, although it also includes elements of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions Islam,  are not viewed as “people of the Book;” extremists therefore consider them infidels or “sorcerers” and have called for their death. Minority Rights Group International reports that there were 25 reported killings of and 50 reported violent crimes targeting Yazidis from September to December 2004.  These incidents included two men being beheaded days after being threatened by conservative Muslims for failing to abide by a smoking ban during Ramadan.  In Mosul in March 2004, flyers could be found stating that divine awards awaited those who killed Yazidis  and in 2007, the Islamic State of Iraq, an extremist group with reported ties to al-Qaeda in Iraq, issued a fatwa calling for all Yazidis to be killed.  In September 2004, the Yazidi spiritual leader survived a bombing attack in Aif Sifni. The Commission was told by one Yazidi refugee that he was followed for several weeks by Islamic extremists on his way to and from work. After he started receiving threatening letters, he became so fearful for his life that he fled the country with his wife and children.  Yazidi cultural buildings and private property were damaged after dozens of Kurds attacked Shaikhan in retribution for two Yazidi men being found in a car with a married Kurdish woman in 2007.
On April 22, 2007, unidentified gunmen killed 23 Yazidis from the Kurdish town of Bashika. Reportedly, the gunmen stopped a bus outside of Mosul, discerned the Yazidis on the bus from their identity cards, told all other passengers to get off the bus, and drove the Yazidi men to eastern Mosul, where they were lined up against a wall and executed.  Yazidi refugees told the Commission that after this incident, members of their community in Mosul started receiving threatening letters, spurring many to flee the city.  The scale of the attacks against Yazidis increased dramatically on August 14, 2007, when four coordinated suicide bombings in the northern Yazidi towns of Qahtaniya and Jazeera killed 796 civilians and wounded another 1,562. The attack, which destroyed the two towns and left more than 1,000 Yazidi families homeless,  followed growing tensions between Yazidis and Sunnis, exemplified by letters and leaflets condemning Yazidis as “infidels” and “anti-Islamic.”  The UN has recently reported that, in the first half of 2008, at least 5 Yazidis were killed in Sinjar.  On December 7, 2008, two Yazidis reportedly were killed in a liquor store in Mosul.  On the night of December 14, 2008, seven members of a Yazidi family were gunned down in their home in Sinjar. 
Minority Rights Group International reports that those Yazidis who remain in Iraq are fearful of traveling outside their communities, which has led many farmers to lose their livelihoods because they no longer go to markets to sell their produce.  Yazidis with whom the Commission met report members of the community having to depend on middlemen to sell their produce.  Many Yazidis have been attacked for owning alcohol shops, although The New York Times has reported that some Yazidis opened liquor businesses in Baghdad in late 2007.  Yazidis have reported to the Commission that Muslims refuse to frequent their businesses or businesses that employ Yazidis because Muslims consider them to be “dirty.”  Many Yazidis have stopped performing religious ceremonies, fearful of being attacked.  Yazidis also complain of being underrepresented in local government and of their representatives being barred from or ignored in meetings. 
Iraq’s small Baha’i community, which is estimated to have 2,000 members, has experienced repression stemming from its prohibited legal status. Law No. 105 of 1970 continues to prohibit the practice of the Baha’i faith. However, in a positive move, in April 2007, the Iraqi Ministry of Interior cancelled Regulation 358 of 1975, which had prohibited the issuance of national identity cards to Baha’is, and the State Department has reported that a small number of Baha’is were issued identity cards in 2007.  Nevertheless, Iraqi identity cards continue to explicitly note the holder’s religion and Baha’is, whose identity cards were changed to read “Muslim” after Regulation 358 was instituted, as well as Muslims who convert to Christianity, continue to be unable to change their cards to reflect their Baha’i or Christian faith.
Iraq’s ancient and once large Jewish community now numbers fewer than 10, who reportedly live essentially in hiding. Many Jews left Iraq in the years following the founding of the state of Israel, and a law passed in March 2006 precludes Jews who emigrated from regaining Iraqi citizenship.  According to the State Department, anti-Semitism remains a “cultural undercurrent” in Iraq.  In September 2008, the Iraqi government announced that it would prosecute member of parliament Mithal al-Alusi for the “crime” of traveling to Israel, an “enemy country” under a Saddam-era law that has not been enforced against anyone other than al-Alusi.  The parliament also voted to prevent al-Alusi from attending future parliamentary sessions or from traveling outside Iraq, and stripped him of his parliamentary immunity and parliament-funded body guards. On November 24, al-Alusi was acquitted by an Iraqi court, which ruled that his visit was not contrary to Iraqi law because passports no longer prohibited Iraqis from entering Israel. 
Minorities in Disputed Areas
The vast majority of non-Muslim minorities who have been displaced from other areas in Iraq have gone to the north, mainly to Nineveh governorate, where religious minorities represent 53 percent of the population,  and to the three governorates controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Dahuk, Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in Nineveh and the KRG, Christians represent 52.2 percent and 24.6 percent, respectively, of all IDPs who have fled to those areas.  Northern Iraq, particularly the Nineveh Plains area of Nineveh governorate, is the historic homeland of Iraq’s Christian community, and the Yazidi community is indigenous to Nineveh and Dahuk. Moreover, the KRG region, as compared to the rest of Iraq, is relatively secure.
In the KRG itself, members of religious minority communities generally are not subject to violent persecution, and many Iraqi Christians and Mandaeans fleeing violence in other parts of Iraq have found safety there.  It has been easier for displaced Christians from other areas to settle in the three KRG governorates than for IDPs who are members of other communities. According to the KRG Minister of Interior, Christians undergo less stringent security checks because Christians are not seen as terrorists, but rather as victims fleeing terrorists.  However, as of December 1, 2008, the KRG eased its border restrictions on the entry of Iraqis from other areas of the country, although IDPs will still be required to have a local sponsor.
Christians, Mandaeans, and Yazidis in the KRG region also report that they are free to practice their religion, to establish private schools in their own language for their children, and to opt out of Islamic classes in public schools. Mandaean IDPs who have settled in Erbil told the Commission that they feel secure enough to have opened a Mandaean cultural center and have requested permanent residence in the KRG.  Additionally, during its mission to Erbil, the Commission was told by several Yazidis that Yazidis who live in the KRG proper feel more secure than those who live outside of the three KRG governorates. 
Nineveh governorate, however, especially in and around Mosul, remains one of the most dangerous and unstable parts of Iraq. Insurgent and extremist activity continues to be a significant problem there, and control of the ethnically and religiously mixed area is disputed between the KRG and the central Iraqi government. While violence overall in Iraq decreased in 2007 and 2008, the Mosul area remains what U.S. and Iraqi officials call the insurgents’ and extremists’ last urban stronghold, with continuing high levels of violence.  Increased security operations by U.S. and Iraqi forces have led to some decrease in the violence in and around Mosul, but the area remains very dangerous, as evidenced by the October attacks on Christian residents, which killed at least 14 Christians and spurred the flight of 13,000 from Mosul to surrounding areas. According to the September 2008 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress, “[d]uring the past few years, Mosul has been a strategic stronghold for [al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)], which also needs Mosul for its facilitation of foreign fighters. The current sustained security posture, however, continues to keep AQI off balance and unable to effectively receive support from internal or external sources, though AQI remains lethal and dangerous.”  According to the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction, from April 1 to July 1, 2008, there were 1,041 reported attacks in Nineveh governorate and from July 1 to September 30, 2008, there were 924 attacks, still a significant number. 
This situation has been exacerbated by Arab-Kurdish tensions over control of Mosul and other disputed areas in Nineveh governorate. The dispute stems from Kurdish claims and efforts to annex territories-including parts of the governorates of Kirkuk (Tamim), Nineveh, Salah al-Din, Diyala, and Waset-into the KRG, on the basis of the belief that these areas historically belong to Kurdistan. During the Saddam Hussein era, Kurds and other non-Arabs were expelled from these areas under his policy of “Arabization.” Since 2003, Kurdish peshmerga and political parties have moved into these territories, effectively establishing de facto control over many of the contested areas.  Key to integrating the contested areas into Kurdistan is Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution, which calls for a census and referendum in the territories to determine their control.  In this context, military or financial efforts undertaken by either Kurdish officials or Arab officials (whether in Baghdad or local) is seen by the other group as an effort to expand control over the disputed areas, leading to political disputes and deadlock.
Religious and ethnic minorities in the disputed territories find themselves caught in this tug-of-war between the KRG and the central Iraqi government. According to the most recent report of the UN Secretary-General to the UN Security Council, “[a]s elections and decisions on disputed territories draw closer, various groups are maneuvering to influence and manipulate the population composition in their respective areas of interest. There is increasing concern regarding alleged attempts to exert undue influence on the demographics in Diyala, Tamim, and [Nineveh] governorates in particular. The [UNAMI] Human Rights Office has received numerous reports of families being forced to sell their property at low prices, and of the confiscation of their agricultural land and economic assets. Moreover an increasing number of threats against their leaders have been registered, prompting further concern regarding the rights and security of minority groups in the country.”  Furthermore, the Secretary-General’s report, as well as the most recent UNAMI Human Rights Report, state that the UN has received reports that members of minority groups have been forced to identify themselves as either Arabs or Kurds. 
The dispute over minority quotas in the provincial elections law is another example of minorities being caught in the middle of the Kurdish-Arab struggle. As previously discussed, in late September the Iraqi parliament stripped a provision, Article 50, guaranteeing a set number of minority seats in certain provincial councils, from the provincial elections law just before the law’s passage. This led to protests from the minorities and calls from majority political leaders, including Prime Minister al-Maliki, for the provision’s reinstatement. A compromise amendment proposed by the UN would have set aside 12 minority seats in the Nineveh, Baghdad, and Basra provincial councils, but the amendment that was ultimately adopted by the parliament in early November provided for only six minority seats in these councils.  Reportedly, the reduction was because of Arab politicians’ concerns that minorities would vote with the Kurds, thereby allowing the Kurds to expand their authority in the north. 
In its efforts to expand Kurdish control in the areas outside of the KRG region, KRG officials have come under scrutiny for abuses and discrimination against religious and ethnic minorities, including non-Muslims and ethnic Shabak and Turkomen. Kurdish officials reportedly have sent their peshmerga security forces into disputed areas, particularly in Nineveh and Kirkuk governorates, encroached on, seized, and refused to return minority land, made the provision of services and assistance to minority communities contingent on support for Kurdish expansion, and impeded the formation of local minority police forces.
To compensate for what they view as inadequate protection by Iraqi and Kurdish security forces, for several years Christians and Yazidis in northern Iraq have sought to establish representative community forces to police their own villages. However, according to news reports and as various interlocutors told the Commission, since 2006, a senior Kurdish official in Mosul-Khisro Goran, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Deputy Governor of Nineveh Province-has blocked an order from the central government in Baghdad to train and deploy 700 Christian police recruits to guard their historic villages in the Nineveh Plains. Instead, the Christians who were recruited were sent to Mosul to fight AQI.  The Chaldean Assyrian Syriac Council of America (CASCA) has reported that Christians in the Nineveh Plains area who are interested in volunteering for the police have been discouraged by local Nineveh governorate authorities.  Additionally, the Commission has been told by representatives of the Christian community in Iraq that Christians who have been recruited into the police are not given the same opportunities for promotion as other officers and that they are marginalized within the force by being assigned to guard churches. Reportedly, some Christian churches in northern Iraq have begun organizing local “protection committees” to provide security in Christian areas. These forces are said to be funded by the KRG Minister of Finance, Sarkis Aghajan Mamendu, who is a Christian.
As of mid-2008, some progress appeared to have been made on bringing minorities into the Iraqi police force for the Nineveh Plains. Approximately 700 minority recruits had been vetted, and of these, 269 had been hired. This is consistent with the police recruit acceptance rate Iraq-wide, which is roughly one in three. The Commission has been told that Prime Minister al-Maliki is encouraging Christians to join the police force and in a meeting with church leaders asked them to provide a list of names of individuals interested in recruitment. However, some ChaldoAssyrian advocates continue to allege that the reason so few of the minority recruits have been hired is KRG interference and opposition, and that the hired recruits are not being provided with sufficient weapons, protective gear, vehicles, and uniforms.
The KRG Interior Minister also told the Commission in March 2008 that the KRG is working with the Yazidis to establish, recruit, and train a representative local police force for Yazidi areas. 
As in prior years, the State Department reported in 2008 that members of religious minority communities “living in areas north of Mosul, such as Yazidis and Christians, asserted that the KRG encroached on their property and illegally built Kurdish settlements on the confiscated land.”  There also was a report that a prominent Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) official had said that Assyrians and Turkomen had no legitimate land claims in Kurdish-dominated territory.  In testimony before the Commission in July 2007, Michael Youash of the Iraq Sustainable Democracy Project said:
Land theft, illegal land seizures, and the KRG’s unwillingness to provide sufficient redress is perhaps one of the most single pressing issues at this time. Indeed, in some cases, very well placed networks within the KDP are behind the seizure of Christian lands…. Land seizures … represent the dislocation of our people from their lands, the denial of their right to earn a livelihood, and the theft of a chance at realizing their potential. This is a direct effort at soft ethnic cleansing. 
While in Erbil, the Commission met with Christians and Yazidis who repeated land confiscation charges and asserted that the KRG was not implementing judicial decisions requiring the return of minority properties. Yousif Mohammed Aziz, the KRG Minister of Human Rights, confirmed to the Commission that he has received complaints of confiscated properties and said he had forwarded them to the KRG Ministry of Justice.  KRG Finance Minister Sarkis acknowledged these complaints and said that the Kurdish government has instituted a policy to compensate Kurds who return occupied houses and lands to Christians. The Finance Minister said he hopes that all properties would be returned to Christians within the next two years. Additionally, the Finance Minister explained that in the Ainkawa neighborhood of Erbil, only Christians can buy and sell land. 
In the effort to increase control over disputed areas, KRG officials reportedly have implemented various patronage systems in which aid is distributed only to those who pledge political loyalty. Some Christian churches and aid organizations have complained they are denied funding by the Kurdish government for assistance programs to IDPs because they have not pledged support to the KDP. A Christian advocacy organization reported that the KDP has been pressuring Christians to sign forms pledging their support for the Nineveh Plains area to be annexed to Kurdish areas and placed under KRG rule. The KDP is reported to be the only investor in the Yazidi community and provides significant investments in the cultural and religious activities in Yazidis, including support for the Yazidi Lalish Cultural Center and its employees; however, some argue that the KDP’s support has led to a dependency and patronage system, at the expense of independent Yazidi political parties.  In addition, according to Minority Rights Group International, Yazidis have claimed that the Kurds have tried to “Kurdify” them in an effort to extend their control over Yazidi areas.  Finally, some minority groups report that they have been forced to identify themselves as either Kurdish or Arab to access some services. 
Political conflicts between Kurds and Arabs have also led to a stalemate in the distribution of Nineveh’s provincial budget, with only 0.4 percent of the budget being spent in 2008, the lowest rate for any Iraqi governorate.  In October 2008, the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction reported that “[U.S. Provincial Reconstruction Team] Ninewa reports that residents, especially those in rural areas, lack adequate access to essential services. Moreover, budget execution remains slow, and expenditure data is not being reported transparently.”  And the Commission has been told that $100 million provided by Prime Minster al-Maliki for reconstruction in Mosul was not well spent and therefore did not have a discernible effect on efforts to reconstruct the city.
This political stalemate and failure to spend reconstruction and development assistance, as well as alleged political motives behind finance assistance provided by the KRG, have led minority communities in these areas to complain that they have been denied their fair share of social welfare and reconstruction aid. According to community representatives, they lack sufficient water, electricity, sanitation, health services, schooling, roads and other essential services.  Some groups claim that Kurdish officials have cut off water and power supplies to certain Christian villages, including the village of Humziya.  Yazidis claim that their villages are the last (after Muslim and Kurdish villages) to receive assistance to build schools or infrastructure. 
To address their lack of security and political and economic marginalization, some Iraqi minority groups, both inside and outside Iraq, have been campaigning for what is variously described as a protected, semi-autonomous, or autonomous area for Christians, and some say for other minorities as well, in the Nineveh Plains area. These options are being considered to give effect to Article 125 of the Iraqi Constitution, which “guarantee[s] the administrative, political, cultural and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all other constituents,” and provides that this “shall be regulated by” a future law. However, the specifics of what such a law would entail, including the territory that such an area would cover, its religious and ethnic make-up, how it would be secured, what governance and economic powers it would have, and how it would relate to the KRG and the central Iraqi government remain disputed even among those who say that they favor autonomy. The idea of greater autonomy for minorities in Iraq was recently discussed and endorsed, though with disagreement as to the details, by most members of Iraqi minority diaspora communities at a conference at George Washington University in November 2008. By contrast, some Iraqi minority individuals and groups with whom the Commission met in Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Sweden, as well as a minority at the George Washington diaspora conference, oppose the idea.
The U.S. government has undertaken some efforts to address the concerns of Iraq’s smallest minority communities, including distributing USAID funds of $11 million in fiscal year 2008 and slating $10 million for fiscal year 2009 to these communities, appointing a Special Coordinator on Minority Communities in Iraq at the State Department, and, in the spring of 2008, creating a U.S. government Inter-Agency Task Force on Iraqi minority issues. The Task Force was supposed to recommend specific policies to improve the situation of minorities in Iraq and, in the spring and summer of 2008, reportedly was working on a policy document. However, the Commission learned recently that there was no final agreement on the document and, as a result, no specific policies have been implemented.. The Commission urges the U.S. government urgently to revive the interagency discussion of policy options for Iraqi minority communities and to adopt and implement specific policies to address the needs of these vulnerable communities.
Intra-Muslim Sectarian Violence and Abuses
Shi’a Violence Against Sunnis
Over the past several years, many serious sectarian abuses have been attributed to actors from the Shi’a-dominated Iraqi Ministry of Interior (MOI) and Ministry of Defense (MOD), and/or by armed Shi’a groups with ties to the Iraqi government or to elements within it. These groups have included al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army,  as well as the Badr Brigade (now called the Badr Organization), which is affiliated with the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq (ISCI). The ISCI is the political party that holds the largest bloc of seats in the Iraqi Council of Representatives and is the dominant faction in the United Iraq Alliance coalition that includes Prime Minister al-Maliki’s Dawa party.  The apparent collusion between state security forces and para-state militias featured prominently in the Commission’s 2007 Annual Report, as well as in the State Department’s 2007 human rights and religious freedom reports. In its 2008 religious freedom report, covering the period from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008, the State Department reported that the “sectarian misappropriation of official authority within the [Iraqi government’s] security apparatus . . . which had been a significant concern in earlier reporting periods, declined markedly this year.” 
Nevertheless, reports in 2007 and 2008 make clear that continued improvements in this area are still needed. In September 2007, an independent, congressionally-mandated commission led by retired Marine General James L. Jones found that the Iraqi MOI was “dysfunctional and sectarian” and that the National Police were “highly sectarian” and should be disbanded.  In May 2008, a U.S. Institute of Peace report concluded that, although improvements had been made by the post-2006 Interior Minister and his Coalition advisors, “the U.S. remains far from its goal of creating an effective Interior Ministry and Iraqi police force that can protect all Iraqi citizens,” and urged heightened efforts to improve the MOI’s institutional capacity, to focus less on meeting the numbers of police recruited and more on quality and results, and to address the force’s continuing sectarian imbalance.  In May, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad reported continuing problems with the professionalism of the Iraqi police.  In June, a report by the Government Accountability Office concluded that sectarian and militia influences remained a problem undermining Iraq’s security forces.  During the period January to April 2008, 14 Sunni men were kidnapped at police checkpoints in Al-Muqdadiyah, north of Baghdad, by criminal elements believed to include Iraqi police officers. 
On October 1, 2008, the Iraqi government began supervising the “Sons of Iraq” groups, starting with those in Baghdad province, which make up slightly more than half of these groups countrywide. Analysts, and many Iraqi Sunnis, view the government’s future handling of these groups as a major test of its commitment to sectarian reconciliation.  In this regard, as noted in September by the U.S. Department of Defense, recent allegations of ISF targeting of Sons of Iraq in Diyala province are troubling. 
In October 2007, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) observed that Iraqi government “arrest sweeps conducted under the Baghdad Security Plan are often less targeted than is typically portrayed by the authorities,” thereby wrongly detaining ordinary Sunni civilians. Further, UNAMI reported that detainees in some MOI prisons had been hung by their limbs, electrocuted, burned, forced to sit on sharp objects, and beaten with hoses, pipes, and other blunt instruments.  UNAMI also reported alleged abuses of female Sunni detainees, including beatings, rapes, and other forms of sexual assault by MOI personnel.  In March 2008, UNAMI recognized that the Iraqi government had taken steps to improve the handling of detainees, but it continued to express concern at, among other issues, the government’s continuing “failure to promptly and thoroughly investigate credible allegations of torture and to institute criminal proceedings against officials responsible for abusing detainees.” 
Similarly, the State Department’s 2007 human rights report recounted numerous sectarian killings, torture, kidnappings, and other abuses by government agents, yet reported that, while there were some internal investigations, disciplinary actions, and/or re-trainings, “during the year no members of the security forces were tried or convicted in court in connection with alleged violations of human rights.”  The Department’s 2008 religious freedom report noted that “limitations in security force capabilities and in the country’s rule of law infrastructure made it difficult for the [ISF] or the justice system to investigate and prosecute criminal activity, including alleged sectarian crimes.” 
In recent months, Prime Minister al-Maliki said that he is committed to fighting so-called “special groups” and other armed Shi’a factions. On April 7, 2008, the Prime Minister denied supporting Shi’a militias, arguing that his government would not and “did not provide any sanctuary or opportunity for any outlaws, whether they were followers of the Mahdi Army or Muqtada al-Sadr or the Islamic Council or even of the Dawa party.”  However, just three days before this declaration, Prime Minister al-Maliki issued a nationwide order freezing ISF raids against suspected militia groups.  In March 2008, the al-Maliki government launched a surprise offensive against Mahdi Army strongholds in Basra, touching off fighting between the government and the militia not only in the southern port city, but also in Baghdad’s Sadr City and in Amara. The fighting continued until truces were agreed to in May and June.  The government also dismissed more than 1,300 soldiers who refused to fight the militia.  Some observers, however, have questioned whether Prime Minister al-Maliki undertook this offensive out of a real commitment to curb Shi’a militias or a desire to undermine a potential political rival before the upcoming elections. 
While the start of proceedings against two Health Ministry officials accused of supporting the Mahdi Army was initially claimed as evidence of the government’s willingness to crack down on violations within its own ranks, their subsequent release after charges were dropped undermined this claim. Former Deputy Health Minister Hakim al-Zamili and Brig. Gen. Hameed al-Shimmari were arrested by U.S. forces in 2007, after allegedly using their positions to help Mahdi Army militiamen locate and execute Sunnis seeking treatment in public hospitals. Other charges included facilitating the torture and kidnapping of Sunni patients, arranging the use of public ambulances to transfer weapons, and participating in campaigns targeting Sunni doctors for extrajudicial killing.  Prosecutors also charged al-Zamili with diverting millions of dollars from the ministry to the Mahdi Army. However, government prosecutors dropped the charges in March 2008, citing a purported lack of evidence. 
Sunni Violence Against Shi’a
Serious sectarian abuses are still being committed by other organized groups outside of the government, notably the Sunni-dominated insurgency and indigenous and foreign extremist groups. Despite the decline in violence in the country, religiously-motivated insurgent and extremist attacks continued to occur in 2008. For example, on January 17, 2008, a suicide bomber killed eight religious pilgrims celebrating Ashura near a Shi’a mosque in Baquba, the capital of the volatile Diyala province. On February 15, two suicide bombers attacked a Shi’a mosqu
Commission on International Religious Freedom, ‘Iraq Report – 2008’, 16/12/2008
United States Commission on International Religious Freedom