In October 2016, Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi armed forces helped push Islamic State toward the outskirts of Mosul. Today these former allies are now in conflict over land and resources.
Iraq has sent its army and Iranian-backed Shia militias to take control of disputed areas. Among the places quietly taken October 15-20 were areas around Mount Sinjar, the site of around 40 mass graves from ISIS’s genocidal campaign against Yazidis, a religious minority with deep roots in Iraq and neighboring states who say they have suffered more than 70 genocides in recent centuries.
Islamist extremists see them as “pagans” or “kuffar,” people to be exterminated, raped or sold into slavery.
Yazidis were not the only minority subjected to this policy. To a lesser extent, Christians were ethnically cleansed from the Nineveh plains, and Shia Muslims who fell into the hands of ISIS were beheaded in mass executions.
Many Yazidis live around Mount Sinjar, which is called “Shingal” in Kurdish.
In August 2014, ISIS overran Kurdish Peshmerga controlling Yazidi towns around Sinjar. In the next weeks, it methodically executed thousands of men and sold thousands of women into slavery, sending many to Syria to be photographed, numbered and auctioned off.
The death toll and the numbers of those still kidnapped may never be known precisely, although a study published in the PLOS Medicine journal estimated it to be 9,900. The former towns and cities of Yazidis were not fully liberated until the summer of 2017.
The liberation didn’t bring them peace. “Our fear today is that the Yazidi homeland in Sinjar will be divided into three or more regions and the opposing factions will fight for control of our land, not to advance the dignity of our people,” UN Goodwill Ambassador and genocide survivor Nadia Murad told reporters in May 2017.
Three groups vied for control of the area. The Kurdish Peshmerga, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) who are connected to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Shia militias that are part of the Iraqi security forces. Each group had its own sub-unit of Yazidi forces. The divisions prevented most of the more than 200,000 Yazidis living in internally displaced person camps in the Kurdistan region from returning home. When I visited Sinjar in December 2015 very few families had come back to liberated areas.
Clashes between Peshmerga and the YBS in May 2017 made many fear that instability would not end. In addition, more than 35 mass graves could not be properly documented and preserved for any kind of future memorial.
On October 17, Peshmerga withdrew from Sinjar as part of a decision to leave disputed areas amid the crises over Kirkuk. Many Yazidis who had affiliated with the Peshmerga, such as local commander Haider Shesho, remained behind and greeted Yazidis who had joined Iraqi forces. Among the Iraqi forces were members of the Iranian-backed Shia militias, Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU).
Some Yazidis had joined the PMU and they were welcomed in Sinjar. As the Iraqi forces swept around Sinjar following the retreating Peshmerga, the Sinjar Resistance Units took advantage of the lack of control to expand their control of the mountain and take over checkpoints in Sinjar and another town called Snune.
According to tweets by Matthew Barber, a former executive director of the Yazidi advocacy group Yazda, PMU commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis asked the YBS to fly the Iraqi flag, which they did. This is a small symbol but it is an attempt by the PMU to get the YBS to appear part of the Iraqi forces so that Turkey will not accuse them of being with the PKK.
Turkey bombed Sinjar in April and destroyed part of a YBS military cemetery, killing several Peshmerga as it opposed the area being used as a PKK base. After the Iraqi forces returned, some of the displaced who had formerly supported ISIS and fled to Syria also began to return.
Barber writes that on October 18, “Jahaysh Arabs from villages near the Yazidi village of Gohbal attacked Yazidis in the area.” The attack “underscores the need for carefully managed security in the Sinjar area.”
Aid organizations in Sinjar were also affected by the changeover. Adlay Kejjan, executive director of the Yazidi American Women Organization, tweeted that “from my assessment in Sinjar two months ago, medical aid continues to be the number one unmet need.” She notes that 10 NGOs under the auspices of the Kurdistan Regional Government had left before the Peshmerga did. This leaves a gap in aid, as NGOs have not re-registered via Baghdad.
Beyond aid, the area needs schools, hospitals, and basic services. Whether Iraqi control will bring stability and unity to the site where Yazidis suffered so much remains to be seen. The intervention by the US-led coalition to fight ISIS began in 2014 because of the Yazidi genocide, but three years later it appears most in the international community have forgotten the small rural corner of Iraq.