Vying for a Voice, Tribe in N. Iraq Feels Let Down
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
KHARSI, Iraq -- When the 101st Airborne first reached this remote village in Iraq's northwestern Sinjar Mountains in 2003, elderly Yazidi tribesmen were thrilled: Their ancient religious prophesy had come true.
"We believed that Jesus Christ was coming with a force from overseas to save us," said the village leader, Khalil Sadoon Haji Jundu, wrapping his gold-trimmed cloak around him against the morning chill. Scrawled behind him on the wall, images of U.S. helicopters and soldiers depicted the arrival of the blue-eyed fighters awaited by the Yazidi, an obscure sect of sun worshipers with roots in Zoroastrianism who have inhabited the valleys of the Sinjar range for centuries.
But more than two years later, as the Yazidis struggle for a political voice and an escape from the poverty they suffered during decades of oppression under President Saddam Hussein, tribesmen such as Jundu say they feel let down.
"We thought you guys were our saviors," Jundu told Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly as the two ate figs and sipped spiced coffee one recent morning.
"We still believe it. But we actually thought we'd be helped a little more," he said, his voice tinged with frustration. "We're kind of disappointed."
From subsistence farmers to activists, Yazidis inhabiting the sand-swept highlands near the Syrian border complain that despite new freedoms -- including a slot on Iraq's Dec. 15 election ballot -- they're still pushed around by bigger, wealthier and more politically powerful groups. Indeed, one of the central power struggles here is not between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, but between the Kurds, who are Muslims, and the Yazidis -- and by all accounts, the Kurds are winning.
After the fall of Hussein in 2003, Kurdish political parties backed by hundreds of militiamen known as pesh merga rushed to fill a power vacuum in this part of Nineveh province, where they remain today.
"We do have freedom, but the invasion of the Kurds and all their pesh merga and money from the north are overwhelming us," said Soad Hassan Qassim, a Yazidi women's activist in the town of Sununi.
Yazidis, with an estimated several hundred thousand members in Iraq, are ethnically related to Kurds but are not Muslim and so eat pork and drink alcohol. Tolerant of other religions, they worship the peacock as a symbol of a powerful angel and sunlight as an expression of God. Yazidi women often go without veils and circulate in public much as men do.
Qassim and other Yazidi activists say they want their children to learn Arabic, but lack the choice because of a proliferation of Kurdish-language schools funded by the dominant Kurdish political parties. They also accuse the Kurdish parties of buying Yazidi votes with offers of jobs and financial assistance, and of election irregularities such as forcing Yazidi observers out of polling places. In the district seat of Sinjar, government officials display the Kurdish flag and conduct business in Kurdish.
"I'm an educated guy, but I can't read" Kurdish, said Mirza Mundo Hussein, representative for the Yazidi Movement for Reform and Progress, over soda in his small office in Sununi, protected by civilians with AK-47 assault rifles. He says many Yazidis now in office, including three members of parliament and the mayor of Sinjar, have been "bought" by Kurdish parties.
In downtown Sinjar, behind high dirt barricades constructed after a car bombing, the mayor's office stands a few feet from a huge Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters heavily guarded by pesh merga in dark green uniforms. Inside, Mayor Daqhil Qasim Hason, who makes a point of saying he is of the Yazidi faith but is ethnically Kurdish, sat in a maroon leather chair drinking tea with the KDP leader for western Nineveh, Sarbast Omar Hassan Terwanishi.