updated 5/2/2007 9:58:55 AM ET 2007-05-02T13:58:55

Soaring sectarian violence and government abuses have caused an alarming deterioration in religious freedom in Iraq, prompting a U.S. advisory panel for the first time to place it on a watch list of countries where worship is under severe threat.

Citing gross violations of the rights of Sunni and Shiite Muslims, as well as followers of numerous minority beliefs, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom added Iraq to its “watch list” on Wednesday. Violations included arbitrary arrests, torture and rape.

Iraq joins Afghanistan, Belarus, Egypt, Bangladesh, Cuba, Indonesia and Nigeria on the list. Their designation is a notch below the designation “country of particular concern,” which would make them subject to possible U.S. sanctions.

Three of the four Democratic appointees to the 10-member congressionally named commission differed with the Republican majority, arguing that conditions are so bad in Iraq the commission should have taken that next step.

In the end, the panel, which reports to the White House, State Department and Congress, placed Iraq on the watch list with the understanding it will be recommended for “country of particular concern” status next year if improvements are not made.

“Despite ongoing efforts to stabilize the country, successive Iraqi governments have not adequately curbed the growing scope and severity of human rights abuses,” it said, describing an “alarming and deteriorating situation for freedom of religion and belief.”

‘Egregious, ongoing and systematic violations’
While noting that militias and terrorist groups commit a large proportion of sectarian violence and abuses, the panel said the Iraqi government bears substantial responsibility for the dismal religious freedom conditions.

“The Iraqi government has engaged in human rights violations through its state security forces, including arbitrary arrest, prolonged detention without due process, extrajudicial executions and systematic torture,” it said.

Many of these target Iraq’s Sunni minority, both insurgents and innocent civilians, it said, adding that the government also condoned or tolerated “religiously based attacks and other religious freedom abuses carried out by armed Shia factions” with official links.

“Given these ties, the Iraqi government’s failure to control such actors could ultimately constitute tolerance of egregious, ongoing and systematic violations of religious freedom,” the report said.

It added that violations persisted and grew worse “contrary to the stated policy of Iraq’s senior national leadership and despite considerable security assistance from the U.S.-led coalition forces.”

The panel’s findings and recommendations are not binding but are considered as the government prepares its annual report on international religious freedom each fall.

For example, the commission had long recommended that Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, be named a “country of particular concern” for its refusal to recognize any religion other than Islam. It was finally so designated in 2005 but enjoys an executive waiver from sanctions.

‘Country of particular concern’
The government has also resisted naming other anti-terror allies, Pakistan and Turkmenistan, countries “of particular concern” despite the panel’s recommendations.

In addition to Saudi Arabia, the countries on that black list, unchanged since 2005, are China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar (Burma), North Korea, Sudan and Uzebekistan.

Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a “country of particular concern” from 1999 until 2003, when the designation was dropped after the U.S. invasion and ouster of his regime.

Between 2003 and 2007, the panel mentioned Iraq as problematic in the area of religious freedom, but the explosion of sectarian violence last year led the committee to explore conditions there more fully.

With a hotly partisan debate continuing over President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the handling of the aftermath, commissioners could not agree on how to deal with the situation.

The three dissenting commissioners “conclude that based on the severe human rights and religious freedom conditions now extant in that country and the sovereign government’s complicity with or toleration of abuses ... Iraq should be recommended for designation as country of particular concern at this time,” according to a footnote in the report.

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