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U.S. Yazidis wary of arming Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq

Grateful for military’s help battling Islamic State, but fearful of bolstering peshmerga

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A clutch of Yazidi-Americans closely tied to the minority group under siege in northern Iraq say they are wary of the Obama administration and its European allies' embrace of a poorly defined effort to arm Kurdish fighters in the Sinjar Mountains.

In interviews Wednesday with The Washington Times, the Yazidis expressed deep appreciation for President Obama authorizing U.S. military force to stop their brethren from being slaughtered by al Qaeda-inspired extremists with the Islamic State, but they warned that relying too heavily on Kurdish militias to do the fighting on the ground after American bombs have been dropped may worsen the situation for religious minorities — and make the overall security situation even more volatile in the region.

"The only way we can truly protect the Yazidis, as well as the minority Christians in northern Iraq, is for U.S. and United Nations forces to be on the ground," said Mirza Ismail, who heads the Yazidi Human Rights Organization International, a loosely knit network of Yazidi groups in the U.S., Canada and Iraq.

"This is a genocide," said Mr. Ismail, who added that Washington appears blind to the reality that the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is exploiting the crisis involving Yazidi and Christian populations in order to manipulate Western powers into providing heavy weaponry to Kurdish militia groups known as the peshmerga.

"We hope the U.S. understands what the KRG is doing and what their goal actually is," he said, adding that many Yazidis "see the KRG as a partner in this genocide."

On Wednesday, the U.N. declared its highest level of emergency for the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. The "Level 3 Emergency" declaration will trigger additional goods, funds and assets to respond to the needs of those displaced, said U.N. Special Representative Nickolay Mladenov, who pointed to the "scale and complexity of the current humanitarian catastrophe."

More than 400,000 Yazidis — an ethno-religious group whose Persian-influenced traditions predate Islam — are believed to reside in northern Iraq. Initially, there were hopes various peshmerga militias might protect the Yazidis from the onslaught by the Islamic State, which began in late June.

Such hopes were dashed two weeks ago, when the peshmerga suddenly moved away from security posts near Yazidi and Christian villages, leaving tens of thousands of the minorities surrounded by the extremists near the Sinjar Mountains, roughly 50 miles west of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.

The peshmerga pulled back from the fight with the Islamic State with "no warning" and "without suffering any casualties," said Bazim Alali, another Yazidi-American who spoke with The Times. Those two factors, he said, have sparked widespread fears among the Yazidis about the motivations of the Kurdish militia.

"We cannot trust them anymore," said Mr. Alali. "No matter what America or any Western country provides to the KRG or to the Iraqi government. It doesn't matter if it's tanks, heavy weapons or rockets. It's only good for them, not for us, because they abandoned us."

Such comments hung a sobering backdrop Wednesday behind calls by the Obama administration and some allies in Western Europe to accelerate the delivery of American and European military hardware to Kurdish forces aligned with the KRG.

While recent days have seen U.S. fighter jets and drones pound positions held by Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, the administration has attempted to frame the action as mainly humanitarian and has appeared eager to back the Kurds in any direct combat with the extremists.

But the eagerness represents a reversal in overall policy by Washington, which has for years maintained a guarded posture toward militias that fall under the peshmerga umbrella.

For instance, since the late-1990s the Kurdistan Workers' Party — known by the English-language acronym of PKK — has been kept on the State Department's official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Its terrorist status was for years tied to attacks carried out against the government of Turkey, just north of Iraq.

Since the PKK is one of the main Kurdish militias taking the fight to the Islamic State, it is reasonable to expect that U.S. and European weaponry will be channeled to the group.

The Obama administration has said little to explain the process by which U.S. advisers being deployed to the Kurdish region will determine which militant groups are given weapons.

On Tuesday, the White House said only that Mr. Obama had ordered "assessment teams" totaling 130 U.S. military advisers into northern Iraq to determine how best to rescue the tens of thousands of ethnic Yazidis trapped by militants, and that the president expects to receive recommendations from the advisers within days.

The fluidity of the strategy being pursued by Washington now sits at the center of the concerns raised Wednesday by the Yazidi-Americans who spoke with The Times.

Sabah Kousadi, a Yazidi-American who offered his views, said that if there are peshmerga fighters who "want to help us now, that would be great."

Mr. Kousadi expressed hope that "as long as the U.S. is involved, there will be no problems."

"We believe in the United States," he said. "The United States can take care of human rights."

His remarks were bolstered by Mr. Ismail, who questioned why there has been no discussion in Washington about directly arming Yazidi villagers to protect themselves against the Islamic State.

"If the U.S. and the European Union want to help, there are thousands of Yazidis willing to pick up arms and defend their region," he said. "The U.S. and the EU have been helping the Kurds for a long time. Why not help us? Why can't they help us defend our region?"

Furthermore, Mr. Ismail said Yazidis have tried to live peacefully within Kurdish-controlled areas, but some of the Kurdish militias are no more trustworthy than the extremists.

While the Islamic State has emerged as the most vilified actor during recent months, he said Kurdish fighters have a history of violence and have kidnapped dozens of Yazidi girls over the years, forcing them to marry or be sold to wealthy Iraqis, Syrians and individuals from other nations in the Persian Gulf.

According to Mr. Alali, the situation is worse now under the threat of a takeover by the Islamic State.

"We have 8,000 Yazidi females and children who are hostages of the [Islamic State] terrorists," he said. "They're using them for sexual purposes, then they sell them at the market in Mosul and other places in Iraq."

He and Mr. Ismail called for the United States to create a U.N.-backed refugee camp for Yazidis and Christians in Turkey, and said a contingent of ground U.S. and U.N. ground troops could be deployed to monitor developments and help evacuate the stranded minorities.

Mr. Alali said fears are rampant among Yazidis that their land in northern Iraq has become "vacant and that Kurdish militias or [the Islamic State] will go and take that land."

"The United States is the mother of all the nations, and this is not the first crisis in the world that the U.S. has tried to stand up and save people," Mr. Alali said. "We appreciate deeply that President Obama and all Americans are taking action.

"It is good. They are working on it. But we need more and more," he said. "It is very urgent."

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