By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
After decades as an underground movement here, the KDP now has 10 offices and tens of thousands of supporters in the Sinjar district alone. The KDP won some 80,000 votes in the Dec. 15 elections, or about 75 percent of the total for western Nineveh, compared with about 11,000 for the Yazidi party, according to the parties' tallies.
Terwanishi rejected accusations of KDP voter manipulation, leveling his own charges at the Yazidis. "The voice those other small parties got was from forgery and fraud," Terwanishi said, waving an envelope he said contained evidence of broken seals on election booths.
The mayor and KDP leaders make clear that they will fight a U.S.-backed plan to withdraw the up-to-500 pesh merga from Sinjar and western Nineveh as early as next month. "If they leave, this area will become like Tall Afar or other difficult, violent places," Hason warned, referring to a city farther west that had fallen into insurgent hands this year.
The KDP's political and military sway here is matched by its economic impact through investments and aid to the region. The party has hired 1,200 teachers, rented school buildings and water tanks, and provided medicine and emergency supplies of blood to local hospitals. It also gives money every month to Sinjar's poorest residents.
Yazidis, meanwhile, are appealing for American support for their fledgling political movement, asking U.S. officials to mediate election disputes and to aid their quest for greater economic independence.
In Kharsi, Jundu greeted Reilly, the U.S. military commander in the region, with a flourish of praise, spraying him with puffs of cologne. Then, gazing over terraced fields of tobacco and fig trees, he described his people's plight.
"Back in the Saddam days, it was like someone threw a big rock on us and we fell down the hill with a rock on our chest," he told Reilly. "Now, with Saddam gone, we feel the rock has been lifted off our chest but no one has helped us up."
Forced off their farmland by Hussein decades ago, the 137 Yazidi families in Kharsi cultivate tiny plots here in the Valley of Tiers, traveling by donkey to lowland markets to sell their produce and buy food. Some work as laborers on lowland farms owned by Arabs, but drought in recent years has shriveled this income. With jobs virtually nonexistent, many Yazidi youth seek to escape poverty by joining the Iraqi police or army -- but even here the Yazidis say they face discrimination, with only two or three from the village gaining entry.
Desperate for help, the village welcomed Kurdish funds for refurbishing its school. In return, the whole village voted for the KDP in the Dec. 15 election.
"We, the Yazidis, are the weakest people in the world," Jundu said, inviting Reilly to a breakfast of fried eggs, soft cheese, flatbread and honey. "The Americans have the strongest army in the world -- you have air power and sea power, and even the land is afraid of you. You are the supreme law -- why can't you make things work and help us?"
Reilly, commander of 1st Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, and a Persian Gulf War veteran, says he's used to such expectations from Yazidis. Once a villager asked him to park a tank in front of his house "forever." He promised Jundu he would return with a pallet of packaged military meals and a one-day medical clinic for the village and would hire three villagers to work at his camp in Sinjar.
"We'll do what we can," said Reilly, of Sacramento.
"Thank you," Jundu said heartily, pulling out a worn book with blank pages. "May I have your autograph?"