Decisions in government are not always about nice programs. Sometimes, it’s about life and death. The other night in my DC office, I stood in front of framed photos of young men and women from Nebraska who died in Iraq. Some of their families I know. Some I have never met. We have given so much, lost so much in Iraq, it’s hard to understand why further engagement is necessary.
Here’s the hard reality: 400,000 Yazidis from Northern Iraq are still trapped in tent structures unable to safely return home. Iraq used to be home to over 1.5 million Christians. Now, around 250,000 hold on. Militias control large areas of Northern Iraq.
Last week, I appeared on Nebraska Educational Television with Nibras Khudaida, one of Nebraska’s 3000 Yazidis, the largest such community in America. I first met Nibras over two years ago in Lincoln after she wrote me a passionate letter, in broken English. Subsequently serving as an intern in my office, Nibras quickly advanced. She became a high school debate champion and gave the class commencement address. She is now an honors student at Omaha’s Creighton University.
Nibras is one of the beneficiaries of a program I helped introduce in Congress that enabled her father, and others who courageously served American forces in Iraq, to gain entry into the United States. It was for persons like the Khudaidas—facing imminent, diabolical death at the hands of a genocidal force—that our refugee and asylum programs were established. As an international community, we should seek to create secure conditions on the ground so that displaced persons can repatriate to their homelands. For Nebraska’s Yazidis––now patriotic Americans who remain closely tethered to their ancient faith and cultural traditions––that is also what they want for their friends and family back home in Iraq.
The story of closure in Iraq involves several key dynamics. First, ISIS is largely defeated, but not extinct. With U.S. government leadership in support, and a coalition of international partners, the Iraq army has fought valiantly and is now a serviceable force. Second, we have transferred funds from multilateral institutions into targeted relief for the most besieged peoples. Third, the sustainability of this solvency depends upon security. That was my clear finding based on the evaluation I undertook on behalf of Vice President Pence last summer in Iraq.
At this year’s State of the Union, my guest of honor was Nobel Peace Prize winner Nadia Murad, who had been sold into sexual slavery by ISIS and eventually escaped with the help of a Muslim family. Before Nadia arrived at my office, I told a Washington Post reporter that the most important need for Northern Iraq was a security settlement to protect religious minorities. Upon her arrival, and with no advance coordination from me, Nadia affirmed the same conclusion.
In support of this goal, my friend Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and I recently introduced the bipartisan H. Res. 259, informally known as The Security Resolution for Northern Iraq, which:
Makes it a policy priority of the United States to support the safe return of the displaced indigenous people of the Nineveh Plain and Sinjar to their ancestral homeland;
Calls upon the Iraqi Government and Kurdistan Regional Government to better integrate religious minorities into the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga;
Stresses the importance of working with international partners to accomplish these goals.
The Security Resolution for Northern Iraq represents a modest commitment with enormous implications. I am hopeful the United States Congress will agree. If this Iraqi-led security settlement does not come to fruition, Iranian-backed militias will continue to meddle in Northern Iraq, religious and ethnic minorities will continue their mass exodus to Europe, and permanent refugee camps will dot the landscape.
Nothing will ever compensate for the tremendous loss of life and limb that Americans endured to ensure that Iraq could have a glimpse of normalcy, a glimmer of possibility, a chance for permanent peace. Performing this last act of duty is not going to fill the hole in their family’s hearts or our hearts. It will, however, help provide closure to America’s decades-long involvement in Iraq, while ensuring justice for the oppressed, stability for Iraq, and the preservation of Iraq’s rich tapestry of religious pluralism so essential for peace in the Middle East.
Jeff Fortenberry is a U.S. Representative, representing Nebraska’s first congressional district since 2005.