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Thousands of Yazidis Rescued, But Many More Are at Risk as the Islamic State Gains Ground in Northern Iraq

Militant hoisting the Islamic State flag, replacing the Kurdish flag

Militant hoisting the Islamic State flag, replacing the Kurdish flag tweeted by an account believed to be associated with the Islamic State @nynwa_news.

Thousands of Yazidis stranded in the mountains of northern Iraq have been rescued, according to UN officials. Since August 3, tens of thousands of Yazidi men, women and children have been trapped there in scorching temperatures. At least 40 children died of thirst and another 25,000 are threatened with starvation. 

Yazidis are an Iraqi ethno-religious minority, who fled their homes in the ancient town Sinjar close to Iraq's autonomous region of Kurdistan and the Iraq -Syria border, after militants from the Islamic State (IS also known as ISIS) defeated Kurdish forces there on Sunday. 

Yazidis, like other minorities in Iraq, are the target of abductions and executions by Islamic State militants. Ethnically Kurdish, the Yazidi faith has some aspects of ancient Zoroastrianism. Many Iraqis refer to Yazidis as “devil-worshipers,” because their faith has a narrative of a fallen angel, similar to Satan in Abrahamic religions. 

As the extremist Sunni militant group Islamic State has been taking control of towns in western, and now northern Iraq, capturing one-fourth of Iraq's territory the last few months, the country's majority Shi'ites and minority Christians and Yazidis have been forced to flee their homes or face execution.

Islamic State's war on “infidels”

Not all Yazidi men and women made it out in time from Sinjar. Some Kurdish new sites put the number of killed between 100 and 2,000. Kurdish site Rudaw interviewed Yazidi refugees who put the number of killed at 300. They also said 500 women and girls were transported to Mosul to be “sold”.  

This isn't the first attempt by the Islamic State at ethnically cleansing an area of people viewed as ‘unworthy’ or as ‘infidels'. IS militants did the same with Assyrian Christians in Iraq's second largest city Mosul, which they captured on June 10, and Turkmen Shias in Guba and Shireekhan, which they've been in control of since June 23. Some Assyrian Christians and Turkmen Shia had actually fled and were seeking refuge among the Yazidis of Sinjar.

The pattern seems to be the same: the Islamic State orders the civilian population to either evacuate their area, convert to Islam or face extermination. Bombing of holy sites important to Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Jews and/or Yazidis, is also very common.

Ayub Nuri writes on the Kurdish website Rudaw:

Shingal [Sinjar] is occupied by a group that has no business being there. Do they hope to convert the local population to Islam? Do they hope to stay forever? It is impossible. The Yezidis have held on to their beliefs for 4,000 years. They have resisted, defied and survived the first Islamic conquest and hundreds of years of subsequent persecution and degradation at the hands of their neighbors. They will not give up now. Like the people of Leningrad during World War II, they would rather resist not five days but five years than descend the mountain and submit to the will of a radical group that commits a massacre wherever it goes.

[...] The people of Leningrad withstood a siege by Hitler’s forces that lasted almost three years until they saw their enemy defeated. The Yezidi Kurds will also see the backs of their enemies and will sooner or later return to rebuild their homes and shrines. But why to sit and watch them die? Young men from every corner of Kurdistan have taken up arms and are now fighting for Shingal. The whole world should do the same.

The Islamic State (IS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) used to be al Qaeda in Iraq. But the IS and al-Qaeda officially divorced in February 2014, after IS reportedly defied repeated orders to kill fewer civilians in Syria. Since June 10, IS has taken control of five oil fields in Iraq. Some experts believe IS may overtake al-Qaeda as the most influential extremist group in the world. The group now controls a third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq, an area equivalent to the size of Great Britain. 

Kurdish forces take on the Islamic State

The takeover of Sinjar was the first major setback for Kurdish forces, who have been defending northern Iraq from advances from the Islamic State.  

At the time of writing, Kurdish forces are planning a counter-attack. Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has also ordered his air force to back Kurdish forces. Up until now Maliki has been at odds with Kurdish forces from Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan, in the fight against the Islamic State. After the Islamic State seized Mosul, Kurdish forces took control of neighboring Kirkuk, a strategic oil town, which did not go down well with Maliki.  

On August 6, in a statement issued on a social media account believed to belong to Islamic State, the group claimed that it had captured a strategic dam in the north and vowed to continue its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate that bridges the borders of Syria and Iraq. The group now controls significant territory on two of Kurdistan’s borders – with Iraq and Syria. 

Yazadis under threat

Yazidis have been discriminated against for centuries and are accused of being ‘devil worshipers.' 

“In our history, we have suffered 72 massacres. We are worried Sinjar could be a 73rd.” Haji Ghandour, a Yazidi Iraqi parliamentarian, said in an interview with the Washington Post. 

According to the United Nations, because of the Islamic State, 200,000 Yazidis have fled various towns in northern Iraq and around 147,000 are taking refuge in the semi-autonomous Kurdish regions, leading to the largest and fastest influx of refugees in decades. There are about 500,000 Yazidis in Iraq.

Elderly Yazidis were particularly vulnerable during the exodus to Mount Sinjar and neighboring Kurdish-controlled areas. Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International's Senior Crisis Response Adviser, tweeted the story of one such elderly who, thankfully, made it out alive:

Footage of Yazidis arriving to Mount Sinjar have been captured by the Ajansa Nûçeyan a Firatê, or ANF, and republished on the UK's The Guardian website.

The Islamic State released a statement in Arabic on Twitter with an attached link explaining their ‘conquest'. The linked contained over 40 graphic images but, for some reason, IS removed them.

Latests details concerning the most recent invasions and conquests, among them two martyrdom operations. 

The link in this tweet refers to Yazidis’ as ‘apostates'. One of the images that was later removed was of a  of murdered Yazidi men and it carried a caption with an out of context verse from the Qur'an:

فإذا لقيتم الذين كفروا فضرب الرقاب

Now when you meet [in war] those who are bent on denying the truth, smite their necks

Yazidis say “stop the genocide”

Fiyan Dakheel, a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament and part of the Kurdistan Alliance collapsed in tears on the August 5 after calling upon the assembly to “stop the genocide”:

Mr Speaker,

We are being butchered under the banner of “No God but God” [some disturbances in the parliament after that statement]. To this day, 500 Yazidi men and boys have been butchered. As we speak, there is a genocide taking place against the Yazidis. [Some more disturbances]. Please Mr Speaker, allow me to finish. My family is being butchered! Just like all Iraqis are being killed. Shias, Sunnis, Christians, Turkmen, Shabak… and today Yazidis. Please brothers, lets put aside all political differences, and stand with us as fellow human beings. I am speaking here in the name of humanity. Please save us! Save us! For the 48 hours, 30 thousand families have been stuck in the Sinjar mountains. Without water, without food, they are dying. Seventy children died from thirst. Fifty elderly men and women died from the bad circumstances. Our women are being used as concubines and sold in the markets. Mr Speaker, we demand the immediate intervention of the Parliament to stop this genocide. There have been 72 attempts to wipe out the Yazidis, and it is being done again in the 21st century. We are being killed. We are being butchered. A whole religion is being wiped out from the face of the Earth. Brothers, I call upon you upon the name of humanity, rescue us!

Her call for aid was repeated by Prince Tahseen Said, the ‘World leader of the Yazidis’ and published on the Assyrian International News Agency.

I ask for aid and to lend a hand and help the people of Sinjar areas and its affiliates and villages and complexes which are home to the people of the Yazidi religion. I invite them to assume their humanitarian and nationalistic responsibilities towards them and help them in their plight and the difficult conditions in which they live today.

The world's, and in particular the Arab governments', lack of response hasn't gone unnoticed. Lebanese-Iraqi satirical blogger Karl Sharro tweeted:

Left-wing Israeli activist Elizabeth Tsurkov called it a “Genocide in our time”

And historian of the Global South Vijay Prashad wondered about Saudi Arabia's role in this mess:

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