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Left out

Why has U.S. war strategy ignored religious minorities in the Middle East?

Issue: "Daniel of the Year," Dec. 18, 2010

Three years ago I attended a meeting outside Washington with a NATO adviser recently returned from briefings with commanders of the war in Iraq. The question had been posed to them: If there should be a targeted massacre of Christians in Iraq (the word actually used was genocide), would the U.S. military respond? The answer from the commanders: No.

It was December 2007. Gen. David Petraeus had arrived in Baghdad 10 months earlier bearing orders to carry out his new counterinsurgency strategy with a thrust of 20,000 additional troops throughout the city. Until then, U.S. forces were bogged down in Iraq's sectarian warfare-with civilian and military casualties sometimes topping 100 a day. That year U.S. casualties hit their all-time high, 904, but fell steadily after Petraeus' arrival to a low of 59 (over 11 months) in 2010. Decades from now historians will study Petraeus-style warfare launched in 2007 and how it catapulted the U.S. military from its post-Vietnam malaise.

So it's always been curious to me that the successful strategy to stamp out sectarian violence somehow did not extend to protecting Iraq's minorities, particularly a Christian population that stretched back nearly 2 millennia and numbered up to 1.5 million under Saddam Hussein. By December 2007, church leaders estimated, that population had been halved through death and displacement to somewhere under 700,000.

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Curious, too, because the counterinsurgency doctrine of Gen. Petraeus is decidedly everyman, and in some aspects biblical: Live your values. Clear-hold-build. Small is beautiful. Those were the bywords circulating the forward operating bases in Baghdad, and they came straight from the Counterinsurgency Field Manual, Petraeus' magnum opus, at that time the first U.S. military manual to come out in 20 years-and to hit The New York Times bestseller list. Petraeus liked to ask, "What have you done for the people of Iraq today?" and was known to stress in briefings, "The human terrain is the decisive terrain."

Leaving Christians out of the counterinsurgency equation has itself proved decisive. And the result of U.S. military and civilian leaders' unwillingness to take a vocal and visible stand against targeted violence toward religious minorities continues to unfold-not only in Iraq but across the region.

Consider recent attacks in Iraq: the Oct. 31 assault on a church in Baghdad that killed 58; the Nov. 9 bombing of Christian homes in western Baghdad; Nov. 10 Islamic hits to more than a dozen homes with mortar fire and bombs, leaving four Christians dead and dozens wounded. Some of the homes were singled out because they belonged to mourners who attended funeral services for the Oct. 31 victims. On Nov. 15 in Mosul militants stormed two adjacent homes belonging to Christians, killing two men, then bombed others. On Nov. 16 a Christian father and his 6-year-old daughter were killed by a car bomb. As Elizabeth Kendal, writing for the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin, pointed out, "This terror has led to a surge in Christians fleeing Iraq. They will join the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Christians struggling to survive as refugees in Syria, Turkey and Jordan. They no longer see any reason to risk their lives for a state where, even if they survive, they will be condemned to live as second class citizens (dhimmis)."

We see similar terror unfolding with the arrests of Christians in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Gen. Petraeus is belatedly taking up that cause (see "Justice delayed"). But the failure of the military to leave a legacy of equal protection for all is part of a larger U.S. failure to address forcefully the authoritarian repression residing within Islam. It will no doubt resound to other minorities and to Muslims who stand against it. Today the Christian population in Iraq is about half what it was in 2007. It may have been spared actual genocide, but to go in one decade from 1.5 million to under 400,000 is extermination by any other name.
Email Mindy Belz


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