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Is Obama Doing Enough for Iraq’s Christian Refugees?

Celebration in Ankawa 01 – en

© ankawa / Facebook

John Burger - published on 08/15/14

The president declares "mission accomplished," but on the ground a different picture emerges.

Are we doing enough to rescue religious minorities fleeing an Islamist onslaught in northern Iraq?

The Obama Administration seems to think so, and was in a self-congratulatory mood Thursday after carrying out several airdrops of refugee aid and airstrikes against ISIS forces trying to kill Yazidis.

But Yazidi refugees and Kurdish officials warned of a continued humanitarian disaster, the Wall Street Journalreported.

Humanitarian aid group Aid to the Church in Need spokeswoman Regina Lynch said in a telephone interview today from Iraqi Kurdistan that Christian refugees want to return to their villages but only on condition that there’s “an assurance of  international protection” to avoid the risk of enduring another offensive by the Islamic State militants.

In a letter written this week, a copy of which was obtained by Aleteia, Iraqi Dominican Father Najeeb Michaeel wrote, "We are in Ankawa [pictured, near Irbil], where several thousand Christians are without shelter and sleep in church pews, parks and sidewalks, in miserable and inhumane conditions. It’s a shame to see crowds of humiliated families, children and elderly…. We are asking first for humanitarian aid and then the assurance of protection and later a means to leave for a new land…"

In televised remarks Thursday, Obama said U.S. airstrikes on the Islamic State militants, also known as ISIL, had broken what he called their siege of Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands of people had been trapped without adequate food or water.

"The situation on the mountain has greatly improved," due to U.S. airdrops of supplies, which he signaled would be halted.

His announcement came after a U.S. assessment team, which spent nearly 24 hours on the mountain, concluded on Wednesday that a large number of trapped Yazidis had already managed to flee. That made it unlikely that the U.S. would carry out a risky evacuation, as had been considered.

"We helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives," the president said.

But the UN, Kurdish officials, and refugees paint a different picture. Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told reporters at the U.N. by phone from Dahuk City in northern Iraq that he spent Thursday afternoon at the Pesh Kabur crossing talking to people coming down from Mount Sinjar.

"The crisis on the mountain will not be over until everybody is able to come off that mountain to a safe and secure location in a safe and secure manner," Dwyer said. "We can say with 100 percent clarity that nobody went up to that mountain because they really wanted to. They fled for their lives."

The United Nations has designated its highest level emergency for the humanitarian crisis, citing the scale and complexity of the situation, which is impacting tens of thousands of people that have been forcefully displaced by the Islamic State.

The “Level 3 Emergency” designation will “facilitate mobilization of additional resources in goods, funds, and assets to ensure a more effective response to the humanitarian needs of populations affected by forced displacements,” said the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov.

UN officials are particularly concerned about the situation on Sinjar Mountain, where families remain trapped and the health conditions are quickly deteriorating.

Among them is Marzio Babille, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Representative in Iraq, who also confirmed that the agency and other humanitarian actors are stepping up efforts to meet the growing needs of those who are being extracted from the mountain, in addition to helping a further 12,000 displaced Christians sheltering in the Kurdish capital, Irbil.

The town of Zakho near the Turkish border is hosting some 100,000 displaced Iraqis, mainly from Sinjar and Zumar, who fled in the previous week. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said that the Dohuk Governorate, in which Zakho is located, is now hosting close to 400,000 displaced Iraqis, including Yazidis, Christians, Shabak, Kakai, Armenian, and Turkman minorities—some of whom have endured repeated displacement.

The website of the Order of Preachers published an appeal from a Dominican in Iraq: "Today, the valley of Nineveh is emptied of its inhabitants," said the priest, identified only as Father Majid. "Christians have been driven from their homelands without reason and without mercy. Religious affiliation in Iraq has been very costly since the regime collapsed in 2003. Being a Christian in Iraq means to be a puppet in the hands of the dominant countries or rather, means today to be as in the teeth of politicians. What unspeakable barbarity, atrocities which is now moving and pulling Iraqi Christians from their origin!"

Father Majid suggested that military action by the international community was called for to free the city of Mosul and Nineveh Valley.

In addition, Kurdish officials were skeptical of the U.S. assessment of the Sinjar situation.

"How much can a small team of people see in a mountain that is 64 kilometers [40 miles] wide? There are valleys and caves where people are living," Shawkat Othman, a director for Dohuk city in the northern province of Dohuk, where tens of thousands of displaced Iraqis have sought refuge, told the Wall Street Journal.

One Yazidi reached on the mountain on Thursday said he was still there because he has 25 other family members, and he considers it too dangerous and difficult to get out. Shwan Rashou-Ousi also told the Journal that he was armed and ready to face the Islamic State at the foot of the mountain and intended to do so if he had to.

"Daesh is still trying to approach," Rashou-Ousi said in a phone interview, using the Arabic acronym for the militant group also known as ISIS or ISIL. "We are ready. We are 30 or 40 families in my tribe, and we all have weapons."

Obama did promise to expand U.S. humanitarian relief, however, and said the situation "remains dire" throughout the country.
According to the Associated Press, Obama also said U.S. airstrikes would continue to protect Americans and U.S. facilities in Iraq, and he said Washington has increased its delivery of military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces fighting the Islamic State.

For days, Yazidi refugees have recounted stories of family members still trapped and voiced fears of a genocide for the thousands they said were left behind. 

"There are many thousands still there spread across a huge area. They’re dying from the lack of food and the heat. The situation hasn’t finished, it is now reaching a more critical point," said Ayad Hero, a 22-year-old who arrived in Iraq on Thursday with 11 of his family.

Yesterday, Father Bruno Cadoré, Master of the Dominican Order, issued a letter urging the United Nations and its member states to deploy "specialist military units from as many countries as possible that have the…capacity to stop the ethnic and sectarian cleansing taking place, to ensure the safe return of the refugees to their homes and to bring the perpetrators to justice."

"When a state does not have the capacity to control brutal levels of violence that the world agrees needs to be stopped (as is the case now in Iraq), then the international community has an obligation to intervene to remove the capacity of the perpetrators of that violence," Father Cadoré said.

Some European countries seem to be willing to increase both humanitarian and military assistance. AP reported that the European Union on Friday sought to forge a unified response to the rapid advance of the Islamic militants and the resulting refugee crisis, with several EU nations pledging more humanitarian aid and opening the way to directly arming Kurdish fighters battling Sunni insurgents.

Dutch Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans told reporters. "…I believe we need to make sure that ISIS is not in a position to overrun the Kurds or to take a stronger hold on Iraq." France has pledged to ship weapons to the Kurds, Britain is delivering ammunition and military supplies obtained from eastern European nations, and is considering sending more weaponry. Germany, the Netherlands and others said they would also consider requests to arm the Kurds.

The ISIS militants’ advances also bring danger closer to European shores. Officials say about 1,700 radical Muslims from France, Britain, and Germany alone are believed to have joined the fighting. A radical French Islamist who had fought in Syria is suspected of killing four people at Brussels’s Jewish Museum in May.

In New York, a UN spokesperson reported that Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson met with Bishop Sarhad Jammo and Bishop Francis of Iraq’s Chaldean American Community, who were leading a delegation of Iraqi Christian representatives and community leaders from throughout the United States.

US military officials acknowledge that the American air campaign has had only a temporary, local effect and is not likely to blunt ISIS’s momentum or ambitions, AP reported. On Thursday, some of the most senior U.S. intelligence experts on terrorism briefed reporters in detail on the Islamic State group. They described a battle-hardened, well-funded terrorist organization that is bent on governing the territory it has seized in Syria and Iraq, while also encouraging attacks in Europe and the United States.

"We assess that the group probably sees conflict with the United States as inevitable," one of the officials said, speaking, as the others did, under ground rules that he not be identified.

Obama has said little about the potential external terrorist threat posed by the Islamic State militants, but he has been emphatic in his position that there is no American military solution to the insurgent threat facing Iraq. He has pushed for Iraqis to establish an inclusive government that represents the interests of each of the major sectarian factions — Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds — and gives more motivation for Iraqi security forces to fight the insurgents.

The Iraqi political process was given an apparent boost Thursday when Iraqi state television reported that Nouri al-Maliki had given up his post as prime minister to Haider al-Abadi, a move favored by Washington.

The Islamic State group has its roots in another group known as al-Qaida in Iraq, which survived years of U.S. operations that diminished but didn’t defeat it. Nearly all of the Islamic State’s leaders were at one point in American custody during the Iraq war, the officials said.

U.S. intelligence has concluded that even a new government in Iraq would need "external help" to make gains against the group and that neutralizing the Islamic State group would be unlikely without addressing its safe haven in Syria, where it has a headquarters. The Islamic State has access to oil revenues and other income sources worth several hundred million dollars a year, the officials said.

The officials said they still were unfamiliar with the structure of the organization and its total numbers, though U.S. officials have estimated the group is about 15,000 strong.

Critics say the administration is only putting off the day when the U.S. will have to directly confront the Islamic State group, whose forces surprised and impressed U.S. officials with the speed and proficiency with which they overran Iraqi government forces at such strategic points as Mosul, the largest city in northern Iraq.

A U.S. intelligence official said a few hundred fighters from the group chased away a force of 50,000 to seize Mosul.

Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey said last month he would present Obama with a long-term strategy to defeat the Islamic State, but officials have not described it. Even the nature and scope of further U.S. humanitarian relief missions in Iraq is unclear, but limited airstrikes continue.

The U.S. military said a mix of fighters and drone aircraft attacked two of the Islamic group’s armed vehicles and a U.S.-made troop carrier near the city of Irbil. U.S. Central Command said the two armed vehicles were attacked after they fired on Kurdish forces, and moments later the troop carrier was hit near the site of the two previous strikes. The Islamic fighters have been operating US-made equipment they captured from Iraqi army forces.

The humanitarian crisis is "not bounded necessarily by geography" or the number of Iraqis in crisis, according to Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary. "I can’t give you a menu that says here is exactly what would require (US) action. What I would tell you is, we’re not taking our eye off the ball in terms of humanitarian suffering in Iraq. And nobody’s doing high-fives here at the Pentagon" because of the improved situation on Mount Sinjar.

"We understand that there continues to be human suffering in Iraq," he said.

The Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal contributed to this report.

Christians in the Middle EastIraqIslamist MilitantsPoliticsUnited NationsVocations
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