The United States and its partners must act quickly following the defeat of the so-called Islamic State in northern Iraq to prevent the radical group from regenerating, Rep. Jeff Fortenberry said.
Across the once-diverse and religiously pluralistic region, a patchwork of Iraqi government forces, the Kurdish-backed Peshmerga and Iranian-controlled militia have kept the vacuum left by the Islamic State open.
The instability is also preventing hundreds of thousands of minority Christians and Yazidis, targeted during a genocidal campaign by IS in 2014, from returning to their ancestral homes, Fortenberry said in an interview in Lincoln on Friday.
"The reality is, we're trying to rebuild the conditions where people can return home," said the Republican, who is seeking an eighth term representing Nebraska's first congressional district in Congress.
But foreign aid provided by the U.S. and other countries to the United Nations and other multilateral organizations, has been slow to help restore the areas near Sinjar and the Nineveh Plain to their pre-2014 conditions.
Fortenberry was present at a 2017 meeting between Vice President Mike Pence and three Christian leaders from the Middle East that he said resulted in a decision to provide more direct aid to those communities.
"Microtargeting" aid to the needs of a specific population of people to rebuild their homes, is more effective than relying upon organizations more accustomed to responding to humanitarian tragedies, he said.
This summer, Fortenberry was dispatched to northern Iraq alongside Mark Green, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Aid, and former Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, now the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, to evaluate the situation on the ground.
The five-day excursion from Erbil through Peshmerga-controlled areas and into militia-held stretches outlined new insights into how the U.S. and its allies can secure a future for religious minorities there, Fortenberry said.
"For our aid to be sustainable in the long term, and for it to accomplish the desired ends of helping these religious minorities go home, rebuild and flourish, there has to be a new security footprint," said Fortenberry, who co-chairs Congress' Religious Minorities in the Middle East Caucus.
Fortenberry is proposing an American-initiated training mission that would integrate Christians, Yazidis, Shia Muslims and other indigenous groups into a security force capable of securing the region.
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An independent security force operating under the authority of the Iraqi government would be capable of promoting peace and stability and lessening the dependence upon the Peshmerga forces, who fled the area ahead of the Islamic State's invasion four years ago, leading to the deaths and enslavement of thousands.
Failure to empower Iraqis to secure the area quickly will keep the vacuum once occupied by IS in place, allowing the surviving elements of the extremist group to rebuild and retake its lost territory, Fortenberry added.
It could also keep an estimated 400,000 Yazidis living in tents in refugee camps scattered across Iraq there on a permanent basis rather than returning to the villages surrounding Sinjar.
Although those camps are secure, clean and afford Yazidis — many of whom have relatives now living in Lincoln, the largest Yazidi community in the U.S. — some semblance of a life, the congressman said "it's a pretty hard existence."
Homes need rebuilding, as well as hospitals, schools, churches and other civic institutions, Fortenberry said, in order to create conditions that would allow people to return to their villages and rebuild their society.
Fortenberry said he asked a Yazidi doctor why IS had chosen to destroy a hospital rather than appropriate it for its own use.
"She said, 'When you want to rebuild a society in your own image, you completely destroy the social fabric,'" Fortenberry said.
While he described his proposal as in the "idea phase," Fortenberry said he sees it as the only path forward to create a future for religious minorities in the Muslim-majority country.
Fortenberry said his plan is "not that complicated" to carry out and potentially attractive to coalition allies because it is Iraqi-led and focused.
He's working on gaining the support of other elected leaders, as well as the Trump administration.
"If we're going to re-establish diversity and pluralism in Iraq, this is the area it has to happen," Fortenberry said.