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U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq could endanger minority communities

By Joe Snell
U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq could endanger minority communities
The 5,500 U.S. troops in Iraq do not directly provide security for Assyrian Christian and Yazidi communities, but they do provide training and support to Iraqi forces and fight alongside coalition partners against the Islamic State. Photo by Staff Sgt. Desmond Cassell/U.S. Army | License Photo

WASHINGTON, Jan. 23 (UPI) -- A vote by the Iraqi parliament to expel U.S. troops in the country raises concerns about whether their absence will leave minority communities vulnerable to attacks by the Islamic State.

"These communities can least afford instability and violence because they're hanging on by a thread as it is and desperately need a focus on rebuilding, returning and resettling in their towns," Peter Burns, director of government relations and policy for the advocacy group In Defense of Christians, told Medill News Service. "Another round of violence in Iraq may be the last straw."

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The Jan. 5 vote by parliament came two days after the killing by the United States of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran's Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy head of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Units.

The resolution passed Iraq's assembly 170-0, with 158 members, mostly Sunni lawmakers including the Kurds, boycotting the vote. The decision is non-binding but puts pressure on Iraq's temporary Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi to expel foreign influence.

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Mahdi, who resigned in November amid protests that began in October over political corruption, continues to serve in his role until a new prime minister is selected. Mahdi supported parliament's decision but has privately said he does not want U.S. troops to withdraw, according to a report from Al Monitor.

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The 5,500 U.S. troops in the country do not directly provide security for Iraq's Assyrian Christian and Yazidi communities, but they do provide training and support to Iraqi forces and fight alongside coalition partners against the Islamic State.

Assyrians and Yazidis are ethnic communities indigenous to parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran and make up nearly 2 percent of Iraq's total population.

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A strong coalition presence in Iraq makes Yazidis feel safer, especially with the continued risk of radical groups that have not been fully terminated, said Murad Ismail, executive director of Yazidi-relief organization YAZDA.

"Withdrawal will mostly likely create a vacuum that will be filled either by internal armed groups or give regional powers opportunity to intervene," Ismail said. "Sinjar in particular will be at risk."

The Sinjar District in northern Iraq was attacked by IS in August 2014 and led to the killing and abduction of thousands of Yazidis.

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In December 2011, under an agreement with the Iraqi government, U.S. troops withdrew from the country. The Iraqi government failed to properly fill the gap in their absence, said Omar Mohammed, an Iraqi journalist formerly based in Mosul, adding that the people of the city lost their faith in the government.

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"We were abandoned by the government," he said during a panel discussion earlier this month at George Washington University. "We were left out."

Forces assigned to protect the city began to feel the battle was not theirs to fight, Mohammed said, leading to IS capturing the city in the summer of 2014. U.S.-led coalition forces, including Iraqi troops, liberated the city in 2017.

IS still has pockets of insurgents in the country because many retreating IS fighters are now fighting for Iran-backed militias, Mohammed said. These groups include not only Shiite militias but also militias formed by Sunni tribes. They now have significant financial and political control over cities like Mosul.

"This is what we are afraid of, not that ISIS still has pockets but of those that are still controlling the public scene," he said.

The city of Bartella, 20 miles east of Mosul, has soldiers from the Nineveh Plain Protection Units, a Christian mobilization force founded in 2014 to protect Assyrian communities. But leaders in Bartella said they need more protection because these soldiers are significantly outnumbered by Iran-backed militia forces.

The Trump administration has expressed they do not intend to leave the country. A statement by the U.S. State Department said that any delegation sent to Iraq would discuss recommitting to a strategic partnership.

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A NATO delegation has discussed increasing its role in the country. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added at a press briefing that the U.S. military mission in Iraq is very clear and will continue: Train Iraqi security forces and fight the Islamic State.

Shamiran Mako, an associate professor of international relations at Boston University's school of global studies, said Assyrians are unsafe whether Americans stay or leave.

"Americans have been in Iraq since 2003, and Assyrian numbers have dwindled drastically since the invasion," she said.

Bahra Dawood, who lives in Erbil's Assyrian suburb of Ankawa, said decisions on either side are rarely made for the people.

"As long as our nation is not one hand, we will never survive," she said. "The power is in our own hands."

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