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Land: Petraeus advice may aid freedom

WASHINGTON (BP)–Religious freedom in Iraq could benefit from the United States adhering to the recommendation of its military leader there to refrain from an accelerated pullout of its forces, a Southern Baptist ethicist says.

During congressional testimony, Army Gen. David Petraeus, as well as U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, “made a compelling case for continuing the current surge strategy” in Iraq, Richard Land said after the recent, two-day testimony the men gave to Congress. “By most informed accounts, the strategic ground has shifted in America’s favor in Iraq.”

Such continued success would increase the chances that people in the war-torn country could express their faith freely, said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

The “suppression of violence,” he said, is a “necessary first step toward religious freedom in Iraq.”

“Clearly, the cause of religious freedom is enhanced by civil order being restored through the defeat of Al Qaeda and armed and dangerous sectarian militia. Religious freedom is more likely to flourish in societies where there is a commitment to civil order and where non-state actors are not permitted to perpetrate atrocities on those who oppose, or merely disagree with, them,” Land said.

Hearings conducted by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Sept. 19 and in late July have demonstrated sectarian violence has had disastrous consequences for numerous religious groups in Iraq. Chaldo-Assyrian Christians and other religious minorities largely have fled the country, witnesses reported. A majority of the refugees fleeing to other countries are members of the Sunni and Shi’a Muslim sects, which are warring with each other, USCIRF was told.

Land is a member of USCIRF, the nine-person, bipartisan panel that researches and reports on global religious liberty issues to Congress and the president.

In the Sept. 10-11 hearings before committees of the House of Representatives and Senate, Petraeus said the troop surge that began earlier this year had largely accomplished its military objectives. The gains have not been consistent throughout Iraq, but the total number of “security incidents” had decreased eight of the previous 12 weeks, he said. Those numbers were lower the two preceding two weeks than at any time since June 2006, Petraeus reported. Ethno-sectarian violence, which was at its height in December, has declined, he said.

The reasons for these improvements, he said, include: Tribes have rejected Al Qaeda in Anbar Province, and that trend has continued in other locales; the American-led coalition and Iraqi troops have dealt important setbacks to Al Qaeda-Iraq and Shi’a militia; and the Iraqi forces have improved.

Under his proposal, Petraeus said, a Marine unit will leave Iraq later in September, and other troops will be removed without being replaced beginning in December until U.S. forces reach their pre-surge level by July 2008. About 130,000 U.S. troops will still remain in Iraq at that time.

A “premature drawdown of our forces would likely have devastating consequences,” Petraeus testified. He said he agreed with an Aug. 16 Defense Intelligence Agency report that predicted such a withdrawal would produce several detrimental effects, including a recovery by Al Qaeda in some areas, as well as an increase in ethno-sectarian violence and refugees.

“The Congress and the nation would do well to heed General Petraeus’ caution against ‘rushing to failure’ when success may be so tantalizingly close at hand,” Land said. “We finally have the right general and right strategy in place. It would be beyond tragic both for Iraq and America if we were to pull the rug out from under General Petraeus and our brave soldiers and Marines just at the time success is within their sight.

“General Petraeus is unusually beloved by his troops because he is seen as one who cares deeply about those soldiers under his command,” he said. “He feels their deaths and injuries personally, and he would not recommend a strategy which he did not believe would succeed, because it would mean exposing his soldiers to needless death and suffering.”

President Bush endorsed Petraeus’ recommendations in a Sept. 13 speech and directed the general and Crocker to report again to Congress in March.

Senate Democrats sought to override the plan with three different proposals between Sept. 19 and 21, but all three failed.
Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief of Baptist Press.