The top Kurdish diplomat in Washington pushed back assertively Friday against comments this week by a group of Yazidi-Americans, who had expressed fears about a growing U.S. and European strategy to channel Western military hardware to Kurdish militias in the fight against Islamic State extremists in northern Iraq.
In a story published Thursday by The Washington Times, the Yazidi-Americans accused the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of attempting to exploit the plight of religious minorities in the area to manipulate Western powers into providing weaponry to the Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga.
One of the Yazidi-Americans said Kurdish forces had abandoned his brethren near Sinjar Moutain in northern Iraq and another went so far as to accuse the KRG of being complicit in a genocide unfolding against the group.
On Friday, Karwan Zebari, the director of the KRG’s diplomatic office in Washington, called such claims “absolutely absurd and unjust,” and said KRG peshmerga forces have done everything in their power to protect the Yazidis and other minority groups in the area from annihilation at the hands of the Islamic state extremists.
During the days that led up to the stranding of tens of thousands of Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain last week, said Mr. Zebari, “peshmerga forces became overwhelmed by heavy equipment that the Islamic state fighters were using — American equipment that the extremists had captured earlier from fleeing Iraqi government security forces.”
“They were being overwhelmed and yet, they kept fighting until the last bullet,” he told The Times in an interview. “To call that betrayal, or being somehow complicit in a genocide is an absolutely absurd and unjust accusation against the peshmerga and the KRG.
“What actually happened is that Kurdish units fought every minute to protect people in the region, along with minorities, including Yazidis, Christians and others,” Mr. Zebari said, adding that, on retreat, Kurdish forces warned Yadizis in the town of Sinjar to flee into the mountains.
“Some even went up to the mountain with them to continue to protect such a vulnerable population,” he said.
His comments underscore the chaos unfolding in northern Iraq as a result of the surge during recent months by al Qaeda-inspired extremists with the Islamic State group, which declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate spanning the Iraq-Syria border in late June.
In response to the situation, the United States and its allies in Europe have begun delivering American and European military hardware to Kurdish forces in the region, in hopes that they will take the lead in fighting the Islamic State group on the ground.
It’s a strategy that represents something of a reversal in overall policy by Washington, which has for years maintained a guarded posture against some militias that fall under the Kurdish peshmerga umbrella.
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 status was for years tied to attacks carried out against the government of Turkey, just north of Iraq.
The Obama administration avoided mention of the PKK in remarks on the evolving situation in northern Iraq. President Obama has used broad terms to praise Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State fighters and working to protect minority groups like the Yazidis.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama said a team of U.S. officials had determined the crisis involving tens of thousands of Yazidis who were trapped by the extremists on Sinjar Mountain had abated because of a combination of American air strikes on ISIL positions, airdrops of food and water in the area, and help from Kurdish forces.
“The civilians who remain, continue to leave, aided by Kurdish forces and Yazidis, who are helping to facilitate the safe passage of their families,” Mr. Obama said.
The presidents statements dovetail with the message put forward Friday by Mr. Zebari, the top KRG representative in Washington, who said claims this week by Yazidi-Americans that Kurdish forces could not be trusted were flatly inaccurate.
Mirza Ismail, who heads the Yazidi Human Rights Organization International — a loosely knit network of Yazidi groups in the U.S., Canada and Iraq, had told The Times on Wednesday that that some of the Kurdish forces in the region have history of aggression toward the Yazidis.
More than 400,000 members of the ethno-religious group, whose Persian-influenced traditions predate Islam, are believed to reside in northern Iraq, and Mr. Ismail said many viewed the Kurdish forces as no more trustworthy than the ISIL extremists 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,” Mr. Ismail said, adding that “this is a genocide” and that many Yazidis actually see the KRG as a “partner” in the genocide.
The remarks prompted outrage among KRG officials, with Mr. Zebari responding that Mr. Ismail is far from the action in northern Iraq and out of touch with what’s actually occurring on the ground..
Mr. Ismail told The Times Friday that he stands by his comments and was unsurprised by the KRG’s reaction.
He said that Kurdish forces who have helped Yazidis to safety from the Islamic State over the past week in the Sinjar region have been from Turkey and Syria and not specifically aligned with the KRG.
Mr. Zebari, meanwhile, said the claim that the KRG is doing anything other than fighting to protect the Yazidis and other minorities is just not true.
“Thus far, some 150 peshmerga forces have been killed and additional 500 wounded in this fight against [the Islamic State],” he said. “Such claims would be of disservice to those fallen and those that continue to fight on the front lines.”
Since the surge of Islamic State fighters began in early June, the KRG has relied on Kurdish militias to provide security for thousands of Yazidis and Christians and towns on the outskirts of the northern Iraqi Mosul, he said.
He explained that some of the Kurdish fighters, specifically in the Rabia area, had come from Peoples Protection Units, a group known as the YPG, which is an offshoot of the PKK and has been active for the past three years fighting al Qaeda-inspired extremists on the Syrian side of the Iraq-Syria border.
When Kurdish forces were overrun near Sinjar Mountain two weeks ago, Mr. Zebari said, the YPG played an integral role in creating safe passage for them to cross into Syrian territory, travel north and reenter into Kurdistan at Peshkhaboor port, near the Kurdistan-Turkey border entry.
Peshmerga forces were then able to fight southward against the Islamic State from near the Syria-Turkish border to “open a safe corridor that thousands of Yazidis have passed through over the past four days,” he said. “Why would they be rescuing these people if the intention was to commit genocide against them?”
“These are our brothers, they are true Kurds, they are our ancestors, the Yazidis,” Mr. Zebari said, adding that Kurdistan is “a home to Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, and others of all faiths and backgrounds.”
“The government coalition consists of a variety of political parties, reflecting the political, religious and ethnic diversity of the region’s people including Chaldeans, Assyrians, Syriac, Yazidis and others living together in harmony and tolerance,” he added.
“The Yazidis have been under the protection of the KRG since 2003 and the KRG will absolutely respect the Yazidi ownership of lands the group has fled during recent days,” Mr. Zebari said. “Just yesterday, the KRG donated $15 million to fleeing Yazidi families to help them in camps in safe haven areas.”
But the bottom line, he said, is that the KRG is now “totally inundated” by minority refugees fleeing from Islamic State fighters, and it needs help from Washington and its allies to manage the situation from both security and humanitarian standpoints.
“People are taking refuge in hospitals, schools, mosques, government buildings, back yards of private homes,” Mr. Zebari said. “To claim that the KRG wanted this, or is somehow trying to exploit it is absolutely ridiculous.
“It is important for the United States and other allies to train and equip and conduct joint operations with peshmerga forces to fight [the Islamic State] today,” he added. “To tip that balance and fight them back, we have to be equipped with just as good as they are, if not with even better equipment.”