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Troops down, fears up

Bill seeks to protect Iraqis from sectarian violence when U.S. withdraws

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Published 12/9/2009

As the United States draws down forces in Iraq, concerns for the refugees and religious minorities there are growing.

A bill introduced last week by U.S. Rep. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Township) seeks to protect and support the millions of Iraqis who have already been displaced by the war, or who could become victims of sectarian violence that many fear will escalate as U.S. troops withdraw. Co-sponsored by 40 representatives, including Michigan's John Dingell (D-Dearborn), Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Detroit), Thaddeus McCotter (R-Livonia) and Sander Levin (D-Royal Oak), the bill would seek investigations into human rights violations and calls on the United States and the United Nations to ask the Iraqi government to encourage free and fair elections, train local security forces and provide safe places for worship. A vote could come after the new year. Carl Levin (D-Detroit) has sponsored a companion measure in the U.S. Senate.

"It's more than symbolic, and having the U.S. Congress vote on this sends a very strong message to the administration right now," says Peters, who was elected last year after ousting longtime Republican Joe Knollenberg. "It's a strong statement."

Peters' district, incidentally, stretches across the southwestern quadrant of Oakland County and is home to much of metro Detroit's Chaldean community, which has been active in supporting refugees. Basil Bakal, who chairs the Adopt-a-Refugee Family Committee, a project of the Chaldean Federation of America that has raised more than $1 million in aid, praises the resolution.

"This should have been done long before Mr. Peters took office," Bakal says. "Finally we have someone not only voicing those concerns to the American people but trying to do something about it."

Sister Beth Murphy, volunteer services coordinator at the Archdiocese of Detroit, says the resolution is a good summary of the complex forces and competing interests in Iraq. "Anything that can draw the world's attention back to the suffering people of Iraq and offers a strategy for healing and reconciliation in Iraq is a good thing," she says. "I hope that Congress remembers that U.S. support for the reconstruction of Iraq's infrastructure is a key to a secure, stable and just civil society for all Iraqis."

But could the resolution promote negative assumptions about Muslims? Haider Ala Hamoudi is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and works in Iraq as a legal advisor. He admits Christians, who are estimated as less than 3 percent of Iraq's population, have fewer resources because of their smaller numbers in Iraq. He welcomes investigations into human rights violations as well as any support the U.S. can offer for free and fair elections.

But Hamoudi, whose Baghdad office has a staff of Muslims, Christians and Yazidis, worries that the resolutions also perpetuate negative stereotypes about Islam. "To talk of millions of people who are members of religions minorities being subject to torture, abuse and discrimination is overwrought and appeals to common American stereotypes of Muslims as being implacably hostile to non-Muslims," he says.

This is not just a matter of protecting religious minorities, though that is an important part of it. First and foremost, however, it is a matter of ensuring a better life for all Iraqis."

News Hits was written by Metro Times staff writer Sandra Svoboda. You can reach her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com.

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