Religious minorities targeted as ISIS consolidates its hold in Iraq

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Jihadist group the Islamic State, or ISIS, has further consolidated its presence in Iraq, seizing control of areas in the north and the west of the country. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are reported to have been flooding into the Kurdish-controlled city of Dohuk from areas recently taken by ISIS. It is thought that upwards of 40,000 refugees who fled to Mount Sinjar for safety are quickly running out of supplies.

Sinjar was previously home to one of the world’s largest Yazidi communities – a minority group in Iraq with religious beliefs linked to the ancient Persian faith of Zoroastrianism. It now lies practically deserted after ISIS took the city over the weekend. And AP has confirmed that five Christian cities in the north of Iraq, including Qaraqosh have also been captured by the Islamist group, amid reports that churches across the north of the country are being destroyed.

Upwards of 40,000 Yazidi, a minority community whom ISIS has branded infidels, are stranded on Mount SInjar. The Yazidi have been targeted by the Islamic State who equate the ancient religion with devil worship. Having originally fled to the mountains for safety, the Yazidi are now low on supplies but face a massacre if they leave the mountainous region. Kurdish fighters are thought to be undertaking rescue attempts of those stranded, but had previously been forced to flee the region. Turkish aid is being dropped on the mountain, but fears remain for the safety of the group. Five hundred Yazidi men and boys were killed by ISIS militants over the weekend in ethnic attacks, and some journalists have already voiced concerns that the situation in Iraq risks turning into another Rwanda or Bosnia.

Mutlu Çiviroglu is a Kurdish affairs analyst based in Washington DC. He downplayed suggestions the crisis would reach that scale, but described the dire state of the situation on Mount Sinjar:

“I don’t think it will reach the Rwandan scale of humanitarian disaster but it certainly needs to be taken seriously. The Yazidi community has been long oppressed, now it’s one of the major targets for ISIS because they are non-Muslim. They are under threat, there are so many refugees. But there are still thousands of people stranded in the Sinjar Mountains, most of them women and children. These people are under a very tough situation – extreme heat, dehydration, hunger. There are reports that hundreds of children have died since Monday. The situation is getting very bad. These people urgently need help; food, water, medication. The international community should do everything possible to protect these people; they are under very serious threat. The women are being kidnapped and made sex slaves, their children are killed, their men are killed. It’s a very serious issue, the Yazidi people need the protection of the international community, and the international community must step up. ”

Wladimir Van Wilgenburg is a columnist at Al Monitor, based in Kurdistan. He acknowledged that religion was playing a factor in the violence, but suggested that power politics has been the main acting motive:

“If you take ISIS for what they claim to be – they want to make it as if they are those who represent Islam but that’s not really the case. It’s more a struggle for power, but it’s clear that they are targeting religious minorities with a purpose, so there’s a religious element of violence here. The fact is that the Sunnis were somehow marginalised by the Iraqi government, which was predominantly Shia. Those dissatisfied made the ISIS militants stronger. Because they have so many weapons and have such fighting experience, they overtook other Sunni militant groups that were fighting Baghdad – that’s how they came to dominate the area. That’s the current situation; it’s some form of sectarianism but that doesn’t mean all Sunnis are supporting ISIS and their violent methods.”

Mr Van Wilgenburg also largely rejected simple parallels with Rwanda, speaking of the many complexities lying behind the current conflict:

“It can be compared as violence committed towards a minority group versus a majority group – there are maybe some similarities also to the Yugoslavian wars, where there was also ethnic and religious violence. But it’s much more complicated than Rwanda where you only had the Hutus and the Tutsis. Here we are talking about a very diverse ethnic area with a lot of minorities. There’s much more regional factors here – Iran, Turkey, the Americans, Syria. The future of the whole Middle East, basically, is affected so I don’t think you can compare the situation with Rwanda – the situation is much more dire. A lot of people have died in Rwanda but geo-strategically or geographically speaking there is a lot more factors that play a role. ”

Mr Çiviroglu described a situation of otherwise relative stability though in Kurdish Iraq. He argued that to prevent further religious violence Kurdish forces, who have taken on a key role in combatting Islamic militants, should be given more western backing:

“Iraqi Kurdistan is not a small area, but the situation is not that bad. There is some information that ISIS is intentionally trying to spread fear among the people, but I talked to Kurdistan just now and I can tell you the situation is not that bad. Fighters are going into the Sinjar area and several other points, and Kurdish forces are responding to the ISIS offensive. But there are so many sophisticated western-made weapons that ISIS is using, but Kurdish forces lack these. They need them, and are openly demanding from the West weapons so that they can fight ISIS.”

The situation in Iraq now presents a dilemma to western leaders, who are understood to be extremely reluctant to return to the country which has proven so problematic since the US-led invasion in 2003. With humanitarian crises piling up though, and increased media awareness of the sectarian violence that risks escalating in the region, they will surely face more calls to provide aid, and perhaps also to support the Kurds. The Yazidi stuck on Mount Sinjar, many of whom are women and children, face a less certain future as each day passes. Leaders with the capacity to act will be only too aware of that.
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