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WASHINGTON // While relations between Shia and Sunni Muslims have improved, a U.S. panel reported this week, "ongoing, severe abuses" of religious freedom continue in Iraq.

In light of attacks on Christians, Sabean Mandeans and other minorities, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is urging the U.S. government to designate Iraq a "country of particular concern." The designation would group Iraq with some of the most repressive countries on earth.

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"The lack of effective [Iraqi] government action to protect these communities from abuses has established Iraq among the most dangerous places on earth for religious minorities," commission Chairwoman Felice D. Gaer said on Tuesday. In a report, the commission described the situation for Chaldo-Assyrian and other Christians, Sabean Mandeans and Yazidis as "dire."

"These groups do not have militia or tribal structures to protect them and do not receive adequate official protection," the commission concluded. "Their members continue to experience targeted violence and to flee to other areas within Iraq or other countries, where the minorities represent a disproportionately high percentage among Iraqi refugees. Marginalized legally, politically, and economically, they 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 this has been to endanger these ancient communities' very existence in Iraq," Gaer said.

The commisison describes country-of-particular concern designation as "the beginning of focused diplomatic activity required by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) from which important obligations in the form of consequent actions flow." Countries currently designated include Burma, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Sudan.The commission also called on the U.S. government to:

 urge the Iraqi government to urgently establish, fund, train, and deploy police units for vulnerable minority communities that are as representative as possible of those communities, ensure that minority police recruits are not excluded from nor discriminated against in the recruitment process, in promotion and command leadership opportunities, or in the terms and conditions of their employment, and ensure to the maximum extent possible that such police units remain in their locations of origin and are not transferred to other cities as has been done in the past;

 urge the Iraqi government to ensure that Iraqi government revenues neither are directed to nor indirectly support any militia, para-state actor, or other organization credibly charged with involvement in severe human rights abuses;

 urge the Iraqi government to work with minority communities and their representatives to develop measures to implement Article 125 of the Iraqi constitution, which guarantees "the administrative, political, cultural, and educational rights of the various nationalities, such as Turkomen, Chaldeans, Assyrians, and all the other constituents," in Nineveh and other areas where these groups are concentrated;

 urge the Iraqi government to enact constitutional amendments to strengthen human rights guarantees in the Iraqi Constitution, including by deleting sub-clause (A) in Article 2 that no law may contradict "the established provisions of Islam," because it heightens sectarian tensions over which interpretation of Islam prevails and improperly makes theological interpretations into constitutional questions;

 press the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Kurdish officials in neighboring governorates to cease alleged interference with the creation, training, and deployment of representative police forces for minority communities, and link progress on representative policing to U.S. financial assistance and other forms of interaction with the KRG;

 appoint and immediately dispatch a Special Envoy for Human Rights in Iraq to Embassy Baghdad, reporting directly to the Secretary of State, to serve as the United States' lead human rights official in Iraq, to lead an Embassy human rights working group, including the senior coordinators on Article 140 issues, on corruption, and on the rule of law, as well as other relevant officials including those focusing on minority issues, and to coordinate U.S. efforts to promote and protect human rights in Iraq;

 amend the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program's new P2 category to allow Iraq's smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities direct access to the program; in addition, family reunification should be expanded for these refugees with relatives in the United States to include not only immediate family members, but as has been done in prior refugee crisis situations, to also include extended family such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc.; and

 ensure that members of Iraq's smallest, most vulnerable religious minorities scheduled to be resettled to the United States are not delayed unnecessarily by (1) providing adequate personnel to conduct background screening procedures, and (2) enforcing proper application of the existing waiver of the material support bar to those forced to provide support to terrorists under duress.

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