November 12, 2008
BASHIQA, Iraq — Kurdish forces have detained Murad Kashtu al Asi three times in the isolated district of Sinjar in Nineveh province. First, they beat him and accused him of being a terrorist and a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a mostly Sunni Arab political party. The second time, they detained him for several hours, he said.
The third time, they hit him in the face with the butts of their guns. "If you leave alive this time, then work with us or we will kill you," he said his captors told him. He was held six days and released Sunday after U.S. forces intervened on his behalf, he said.
The Kurds never charged him with a crime and even called him their "brother." His offense was working with an Arab party in territory that the Kurds covet. "We don't want you to be with Arabs anymore . . . if they controlled the area (the existence of the) Yazidis will end," Asi recalled.
Asi is a member of the ancient Yazidi sect, most of whom consider themselves Kurdish. In the complex and often violent landscape of Iraq, the community, estimated at a few hundred thousand, is at the center of a tug of war over land between mostly Arab Iraq to the south and mostly Kurdish Iraq to the north.
Three minorities that populate the villages near the city of Mosul in Nineveh now find themselves under heavy Kurdish pressure: the Yazidis, whom some Muslims and Christians disdain for revering Malak Tawas, the peacock angel, which other religions see as devil worship; the Shabaks, a small ethnic group of Sunni and Shiite Muslims who claim Persian descent; and the Assyrian and Chaldean Christian communities, who speak Aramaic, the language of the biblical era.
Together they hold one of the keys to Kurdish ambitions to expand the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan on this strip of 300 miles between Sinjar near the Syrian border to Khanaqeen in Diyala province. Kurds chafed under the repression of Saddam Hussein's regime, but with provincial elections looming, many non-Kurds fear that they're more determined to achieve their greater Kurdistan.
"Any man who is not with them (the Kurds) — and especially not with the party (the Kurdistan Democratic Party) — cannot live in the area because he will suffer, and for this reason I think all of us will leave the area," said Asi, who works in Sinjar with al Hadba, a Sunni Arab nationalist party. Every night he moves to avoid detention. Six days ago, however, he was found and held again.
Although world attention has focused on the battle to control oil-rich Kirkuk — where the late Saddam once purged Kurds, and now Kurds and Kurdish parties are purging Arabs — the strip of small villages connecting Sinjar to Khanaqeen has turned into a powder keg as Kurdish and Arab parties compete for the loyalties of the minorities. Both sides are using economic incentives, intimidation, detention and in some cases murder.
The force at the center of the conflict is the Peshmerga, Kurdish militias that mostly have been absorbed into the Iraqi Security Forces but remain loyal to the Kurdish parties in the north rather than the Shiite-dominated central government to the south. Sunni Arabs, who've cracked down on extremists elsewhere in Iraq, are angry and fearful of Kurdish rule in the region and have given the extremists space to terrorize Mosul.
"The whole front of where the (Kurdistan Regional Government) borders the rest of Iraq from Sinjar through Kirkuk on down to Khanaqeen is timed for a misstep, especially a military misstep," said Brig. Gen. Tony Thomas, the U.S. commander in Nineveh province. "We've got a real challenge and a crisis on our hands."
The office of the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Massoud Barzani, an outspoken Kurdish nationalist and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, rejects allegations that they're "Kurdifying" areas through intimidation, detention and extrajudicial killings. Barzani's chief of staff, Fuad Hussein, charged that accusations from the Shabak and Yazidi communities, whom the Kurds consider to be fellow Kurds, often were due to Arab backing and Arab racism against the Kurds. Any incidents of intimidation or abuse are isolated and not a policy, he said.
"Some people speak on the behalf of the Yazidis, and now there are a few who are speaking on behalf of the Shabak to say that there is a policy within Kurdish political parties or within the KRG to discriminate against them," Hussein said. "We are trying to do everything to protect these people. We believe in their rights. . . . We are trying to help them as we are trying to help ourselves."
Thomas said he'd seen little evidence of extrajudicial killings during his 14-month tour. "We hear allegations all the time. You'll hear about Kurdish pressure; it will be everything from economic and political pressure to more concerning forced apprehension and murder," he said.
The issue is so sensitive that many Western officials won't talk about Kurdish intimidation on the record. Residents who've complained to U.N. officials about intimidation by Kurdish forces are often subject to detention by those forces within hours of their meetings with the officials.
Earlier this year, Khanaqeen was a flash point between Kurdish forces and troops sent from the central government after the Kurdish soldiers who'd been in the mixed Kurdish and Arab area wouldn't stand down.
"They're definitely caught in the middle, and our job is just to make sure that we can protect the area," said Thomas, speaking of the minority groups. "It's a political hot potato right now that we're trying to contain."
Now that the Iraqi parliament has approved a provincial elections law, Kurds worry that they can't retain the power that they wield in mostly Sunni Arab Nineveh province.
Kurds dominate the provincial council, holding 31 of 41 seats. Peshmerga loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party dominate half of Mosul, and they've taken over many of the villages in the disputed areas within the 300-mile strip since 2003, and continue to expand.
An amendment to the provincial elections law giving minorities a quota in the upcoming elections gave Christians, Shabaks and Yazidis only one seat each in the province. Arab nationalists, worried that the minorities would act as an arm of the Kurds, extending their power base, reduced the minority representation from that in an earlier proposal.
Kurdish pressure is acute in Nineveh's minority villages.
In the Sinjar district of mostly Yazidis and Arabs, Sheik Abdullah al Yawar, a Sunni Arab tribal sheik who works with the nationalist party Hadba, said the Peshmerga and Kurdistan Democratic Party representatives were pressuring the community to accept appointed Kurdish leaders from the Kurdish region rather than residents of Sinjar.
"The people are now boiling because the army is used against them," he said.
"There is no freedom, no democracy. You cannot speak about any ideas that disagree with the KDP," he said. "The people are boiling, and if this is not a fair election it will be like a volcano."
Kurdish flags now flutter in the sky in the Christian villages of Tel Keif, al Qosh, Qaraqosh and Bartella near Mosul, and the roads that curve through the mountains are manned by Kurdish soldiers loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party.
At the entrances to Christian towns, Christian militiamen paid by the Kurdistan Regional Government man checkpoints.
In some areas, Kurds are attempting to buy loyalty with cash. Nineveh province should be the main provider of funds to the villages in its northern fields, but the Kurdistan Regional Government has flooded the minority villages with money to win their support. The Kurdish government's finance minister, Sarkis Aghajan, a Chaldean Catholic, has spent millions of dollars to restore run-down churches and provide homes for displaced Christians and bus transportation for university students to Mosul.
When about 10,000 Christians fled Mosul after a spate of about 15 killings in the span of two weeks, the Christian affairs offices and churches in these villages of the northern fields took them in and urged them not to return. The central government in Baghdad promised about $127 to each displaced family, but Aghajan topped that by giving each family $212.
In every church in the village of Qaraqosh, about 18 miles east of Mosul, a photo of Aghajan hangs in the vestibule.
"As Christians we're trying to keep the same distance between us and the Arabs and us and the Kurds so we can live in peace," said Rama Daniel of the Assyrian Democratic Movement in Qaraqosh. "The Iraq flag is disappearing day by day."
Outside the Assyrian party's offices, the old Iraqi flag hangs above the building, a reminder of the protection that Christians had during Saddam's dictatorship. Kurds, however — the victims of Saddam's chemical, gas and aerial attacks — refuse to fly the flag.
"We do this to annoy them," Daniel said, referring to the Kurds and their expansion into the Christian towns.
Daniel was born and raised in the small Christian village, and he said that the money now flooding the town was worrying. The Kurdish militiamen, who were allied with the United States, arrived in his village after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, he said.
Daniel has stopped going to the churches, where Aghajan's smiling face reminds him of the powerful men who pay the religious leaders. The cameraman for the Assyrian Democratic Movement's TV channel was beaten up by Christians allied with the Kurdish region, and he was banned from church functions.
"All Iraqis saw an American occupation, and we saw a Kurdish occupation," he said. "Kurdification is harsher than Arabization. They are buying the people."
Across the area, the Kurdistan Regional Government has opened hundreds of schools over the years and appointed more than 400 teachers this year.
In the Chaldean Catholic churches, priests speak of Aghajan as a hero and say that they want to be part of the Kurdish region. Many priests and administrators at churches in the region whispered to a McClatchy reporter that the money that comes from the Kurdistan Regional Government pays for fixing up the churches and for other services.
In Bashiqa, a mostly Yazidi and Shabak village about 14 miles northeast of Mosul, the regional government has implemented a Kurdish school curriculum this year for the first time in a town where almost everyone speaks only Arabic. Kurds claim that Shabaks are Kurds and their language is a dialect of Kurdish, but not all Shabaks agree.
In many of the 35 Shabak villages east of Mosul and just south of Bashiqa, Arabic signs have slowly given way to Kurdish, the Iraqi red, white and black flags have slowly been replaced by red, green and yellow Kurdish flags, and schools have begun offering Kurdish language courses.
Those who publicly denounce the Kurdish expansion into Shabak villages and the Kurdish claim on the Shabak community fear for their lives.
Fadel Abbas is convinced that Kurdish security forces killed his father, Abbas Kadhim, a member of the Shabak assembly. Kadhim publicly called for Shabaks to be recognized as an ethnic community and not be allowed to melt into Kurdish society, a view that angered local representatives of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, his family said.
Kadhim wrote pieces on Shabak Web sites calling for the community to preserve its identity, traditions and loyalty to the Nineveh region and criticized Shabak members of the Kurdish parties. Days later he received a threat from the Asayesh, Kurdish intelligence, his family said.
On July 13, Kadhim was shot down about 30 yards from a Peshmerga checkpoint.
The Shabak party posted accusations against the Kurdish parties online, filed a criminal case and gave evidence to the United Nations. The United Nations demanded a thorough investigation, but no one has been arrested, and Kadhim's family members say that they're being watched.
"He wrote that we are Shabak, we are the residents of Nineveh fields, and we demand our rights," said his wife, Sahla Jawad Ramadan. "That's why he was targeted. We told the United Nations and the American Embassy about this."
Some even accuse the Kurds of killing Christians to give the illusion that minority communities can find a haven only under Kurdish rule.
When about 15 Christians were killed last month in Mosul, other Christians fled to the Kurdish or Kurdish-protected areas for safety as Arabs, Kurds, Shabaks and Yazidis have in the past. Rumors circulated that Kurds had killed the Christians to draw them into the Kurdish region and side with them when it came time to decide whether the disputed areas would land with the semi-autonomous Kurdish north or with Nineveh province.
The left bank of the city, where the spate of killings took place, is protected by Peshmerga. A battalion loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party was investigated and found to have failed to protect the population.
The right bank is rife with Arab extremists, including al Qaida in Iraq, who typically carry out attacks and killings there.
However, the U.S. military, which has control over the province, said it had proof that Sunni Arab extremists within al Qaida in Iraq had targeted the Christian community.
Christians who fled to surrounding villages said they didn't know who'd killed their brethren. They were so fearful they wouldn't give their names.
"We don't know if those who killed us are among us now," one woman said.
Mosul, a mostly Sunni Arab city, is by far the bloodiest place in Iraq now, still at war while overall the country's violence has lessened. Kurds provide services to those who side with them, while Sunni Arab extremists play on Iraqi Arabs' fears of Kurdish expansion. Those in the middle are subject to terrorism and in some cases have been murdered, but it isn't clear by whom. Kurds also are being run out of the city.
In a small coffee shop in Bashiqa, a village near Mosul, an uncle and his nephew debated their history as Yazidis and where they belong in the new Iraq.
Khalil Jamal, 74, wore a traditional Arab headdress, and his voice was deep and gravelly.
"It's not in our hands," he told his nephew Khadar Jamal.
"Let's suppose we want to join Kurdistan. Will the government let us?" said Khadar Jamal, who's 45.
"It is influencing our lives. They are killing us to empower themselves," he said, referring to both Arabs and Kurds.
"If I want to stay a part of Mosul and the others want it, it doesn't matter. We are Yazidis, and Yazidis are to join Kurdistan whether we accept it or not," Khalil Jamal said.
The debate moved to the roots of the Yazidis. Their holy scriptures are written in Kurdish, they said.
"My clothes are Kurdish and our religion is Kurdish," Khadar Jamal said, pointing to the traditional clothes he wore.
Another patron piped up angrily.
"We are not Kurds; our texts are also in Arabic and some in Persian," he said.
Khalil Jamal sighed.
"I am Yazidi, and we need a voice," he said. "In the end, we want whoever gives us security."
In Sheikhan, another small village near Mosul, the spiritual leader of the Yazidis sat on the colorful woven rug reserved for the man who leads the religious community. He said the Yazidis were Kurds but that the community must be protected from Kurdish and Arab extremists. The community is being pulled in every direction, he said.
"The Yazidis have no problem with the Muslims, but we are in this place and we are considered the winning card," said the spiritual leader, Baba Sheikh. "We are the balance, and whoever wins the Yazidis tips the scale."
(McClatchy special correspondent Mohammed al Dulaimy contributed to this report.)