WASHINGTON – President Bush expressed optimism for sectarian reconciliation in Iraq during his surprise visit to the Middle East country on Monday.
The president's visit was made a week ahead of the much-anticipated congressional report from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top American commander in Iraq, on progress of the conflict.
During his visit, Bush emphasized to troops and reporters the success seen in the province of Anbar and the hope for its replication in other areas of Iraq – especially for the more complex Sunni-Shiite violence.
"When you stand on the ground here in Anbar and hear from the people who live here, you can see what the future of Iraq can look like," said Bush at the remote Al-Asad Air Base in Anbar province, according to The New York Times.
In the past couple months, the Sunni-dominated Anbar province has experienced stability and peace not seen elsewhere in Iraq. Citizens are reportedly be able to go outside and wash their cars without fear of a bomb blowing up as is the case in most other parts of Iraq.
The difference resulted from Sunni tribal leaders teaming up with U.S. military forces to drive out Sunni al Qaeda-linked extremists in the formerly volatile western province. U.S. deaths in Anbar have dropped from 40 in December to four in June, according to U.S. News and World Report.
While such developments are encouraging, the Bush administration and Congress have been criticized for ignoring abuses against religious minorities in Iraq and for viewing these communities as "inconsequential."
"They (religious minorities) don't sponsor terrorism, hold political power or have strong regional allies. Because they do not cause trouble, they are ignored," wrote Nina Shea, a commissioner for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in a recent column in the Washington Post.
"They are not simply caught in the crossfire or a Muslim power struggle; they are being targeted in a ruthless cleansing campaign by Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish militants," Shea noted .
Iraqi Christians, for example, are often targets of kidnappings for ransom because they often own small businesses. Moreover, this minority group suffers from assassination of its religious leaders, bombings and destruction of churches, and death threats meant to force Christians from their homes – abuses all of which are acknowledged by USCIRF.
"The United States has no policies designed to protect or rescue them (religious minorities)," Shea wrote. "Worse, it has carried out policies heedless of their effect on Iraq's most vulnerable."
As a result, Iraqi Christians – mostly Assyrians or Chaldeans who are some of the oldest Christian communities in the world – have been forced to flee Iraq in droves.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates Christians make up nearly half of the refugees fleeing Iraq although they compose only three percent of the country's population.
About four million of Iraq's 26 million people have fled the country since the 2003 U.S.-led offensive, according to the UNHCR.
"The situation is more than desperate," testified the Rev. Canon Andrew White before USCIRF in July. White is the vicar of the 1,300-membered St. George's Anglican Church in Baghdad which organizes an interfaith reconciliation effort sponsored by the Pentagon.
"The Coalition has failed the Christians. We have done nothing to support the Christian community or the increased Christian suffering," lamented White, who is originally from England.
The Anglican priest emphasized that violence against Christians is increasing "all the time," citing that 36 of his own congregants was kidnapped in July alone and only one returned.
"It is in America's national and moral interests to help Iraq's Christians and other non-Muslims," advised Shea in her column. "The most vulnerable must be given asylum. We must also help those determined to stay."
The White House will give a formal report on Iraq to Congress by Sept. 15 to try to persuade U.S. lawmakers to continue funding the Iraq war.