Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Yezidi leaders meet to plot a response after the bombings

(The Guardian) - Aside from the physical damage it wrought, the coordinated bombing attack by suspected al-Qaida operatives revived fears among the Yezidi community, one of the region's oldest ethno-religious groups, of annihilation at the hands of their religious enemies - in this case, Sunni extremists. Along with other religious minorities in Iraq who initially rejoiced at the toppling of the Ba'athist regime, Yezidi Kurds say the subsequent chaos and political paralysis has left them as vulne0rable as before.
"The attack came as no surprise to us," Prince Tahseen Sayid Ali, the temporal leader of the Yezidis, told the Guardian in his headquarters in Sheikhan, about 40 miles north-east of Mosul. Last April, the community came under the international spotlight when a Yezidi girl married a Muslim boy and was reported to have converted to Islam. She was promptly stoned to death by a mob in her hometown of Bazan. The murder was caught on a mobile phone camera and distributed on the internet. Yezidi leaders condemned the killing, but the damage was done.
In response, gunmen pulled 23 Yezidi workers off a bus near Mosul and shot them dead. Hundreds of Yezidi students at Mosul university have since either fled or moved to universities inside the Kurdish autonomous area. For the past month, said Prince Tahseen, Yezidi leaders in Sinjar had been complaining of threats by Islamists. They said the militants, holed up among local Sunni Arab settlements along the Syrian border, had effectively blockaded Yezidi towns, preventing delivery of foodstuffs and fuel.
"The Islamic terrorists had made it very clear that they wanted to see rivers of Yezidi blood," said Prince Tahseen. But no one, least of all the US army, which is nominally in control of the region, was listening. "I'm sure it will happen again unless we take steps to protect ourselves," he said. "We are a peaceful people. We don't have force of arms. The only protection is for all the Yezidis is to be part of the Kurdish self-rule zone. But whether the Arabs allow us to vote on it as the constitution says we should, is another question."
In past centuries, the Yezidi tribes had been very powerful, covering large areas of Kurdistan. But waves of persecution, particularly under the Ottomans, has meant there are only isolated groups left in Iraq: in the foothills of Kurdish mountains and further south-west in the vicinity of Jebel Sinjar. Their numbers, thought to be only a few hundred thousand, had already dwindled by the 2003 US invasion. As part of his Arabi-sation campaign, Saddam uprooted Yezidis from their ancestral lands in Sinjar, herding many of them into new "collective towns" which were little more than large concentration camps.
But the Yezidis who live to the east of Mosul have fared better. There lies the town of Sheikhan, where the prince holds court, and their main religious centre at Lalish, in a steep, wooded valley punctuated with ribbed white conical towers that mark the positions of Yezidi shrines and tombs.
These areas abut the Kurd's autonomous region, the most tranquil part of Iraq. Several Yezidis hold positions in the Kurdish administration and sit in the regional parliament. They are trying to convince their brethren in the Sinjar area to join them, by voting in a referendum planned for the end of the year. A recent survey suggested that 80% of Yezidis may opt to join the Kurdistan regional government if given guarantees of religious and communal freedom.
"If we are all united inside the Kurdistan federal region, then we can have better protection and also have a better chance of asking for our rights," said Prince Tahseen. That may be one main reason why they were attacked, he says.
There was no doubting the galvanising effects that the attack has had. Prince Tahseen, whose royal line is said to date back some 500 years, and his spiritual counterpart - the Yezidi's equivalent of the Pope -Baba Sheikh Khorto Haji Ismael, convened a gathering of tribal leaders in Sheikhan yesterday to plot a response. It included money and political support and a determination to bring Yezidis inside the Kurdish ruled areas for safety. After the meeting the men and their entourage left in a long convoy for Sinjar.

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