How the Massacre of Religious Minorities Is Driving U.S. Action in Iraq

The Obama administration and Republican lawmakers alike are calling for U.S. protection of religious groups threatened by Islamic militants.

Iraqi Yazidi women who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar take shelter inside a school in the Kurdish city of Dohuk on Aug. 5.
National Journal
Marina Koren and Kaveh Waddell
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Marina Koren Kaveh Waddell
Aug. 8, 2014, 10:44 a.m.

There are about 600,000 Yazid­is, one of Ir­aq’s old­est re­li­gious minor­it­ies, liv­ing in the world. About 40,000 of them are stran­ded on a moun­tain in north­w­est Ir­aq, run­ning out of food and wa­ter and fear­ing death at the hands of the Is­lam­ic mil­it­ants who drove them there.

The spe­cif­ics of the hu­man­it­ari­an crisis, with Ir­aqi Chris­ti­ans also play­ing a large part, has White House of­fi­cials, Re­pub­lic­an law­makers, and oth­ers on the same page for in­creased sup­port as Amer­ic­an air forces and aid reach Ir­aq.

The Yazid­is fled to Mount Sin­jar, a mile-high ridge, this week be­cause of a re­sur­gence in at­tacks by the ex­trem­ist group Is­lam­ic State in Ir­aq and Syr­ia. U.S. forces came to the Ir­aqis’ aid late Fri­day morn­ing loc­al time, drop­ping 5,300 gal­lons of fresh drink­ing wa­ter and 8,000 meals ready-to-eat by air­craft.

Yazid­is are eth­nic­ally Kur­d­ish and most speak the Kur­d­ish lan­guage, but their faith sep­ar­ates them from the ma­jor­ity Sunni Kur­ds in Ir­aq. Yazid­is’ be­liefs weave to­geth­er ele­ments of Is­lam with Chris­tian­ity and Zoroastri­an­ism, an an­cient Per­sian re­li­gion prac­ticed by very few today. Cast as “dev­il-wor­ship­pers” by out­siders, mem­bers of the Yazidi com­munity have faced per­se­cu­tion for their be­liefs from both Ar­abs and Kur­ds.

The plight of Ir­aq’s Chris­ti­an minor­ity in par­tic­u­lar has drawn the at­ten­tion of Amer­ic­ans, and is stead­ily worsen­ing. On Fri­day, IS­IS forces over­ran Qaraqosh, Ir­aq’s largest Chris­ti­an town. Thou­sands have fled the north­ern town since IS­IS fight­ers gave them an ul­ti­mat­um: Leave, con­vert, or die. Two smal­ler Chris­ti­an vil­lages nearby were also at­tacked on Thursday and Fri­day, for­cing hun­dreds of fam­il­ies from their homes. The Chaldean arch­bish­op of Kirkuk, Joseph Thomas, called the cir­cum­stances “cata­stroph­ic, a crisis bey­ond ima­gin­a­tion.”

Ir­aq is home to oth­er small re­li­gious minor­it­ies, in­clud­ing the Shabak and the Turk­men. IS­IS has sys­tem­at­ic­ally killed mem­bers of both groups as its mil­it­ants have swept through the coun­try this year.

The ex­trem­ist group’s ac­tions against these re­li­gious minor­it­ies has Pres­id­ent Obama say­ing that an IS­IS at­tack on the Yazid­is stran­ded on the moun­tain “would con­sti­tute gen­o­cide.” The hu­man­it­ari­an crisis is dif­fer­ent than oth­er for­eign con­flicts, he said Thursday night, which means it mer­its an im­me­di­ate U.S. re­sponse:

When we face a situ­ation like we do on that moun­tain — with in­no­cent people fa­cing the pro­spect of vi­ol­ence on a hor­rif­ic scale, when we have a man­date to help — in this case, a re­quest from the Ir­aqi gov­ern­ment — and when we have the unique cap­ab­il­it­ies to help avert a mas­sacre, then I be­lieve the United States of Amer­ica can­not turn a blind eye. We can act, care­fully and re­spons­ibly, to pre­vent a po­ten­tial act of gen­o­cide. That’s what we’re do­ing on that moun­tain.

Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry said that IS­IS’s at­tacks against Ir­aqi ci­vil­ians, in­clud­ing Yazidi and Chris­ti­an minor­it­ies, “bear all the warn­ing signs and hall­marks of gen­o­cide.” “For any­one who needed a wake-up call, this is it,” Kerry said.

The only Yazidi mem­ber of the Ir­aqi par­lia­ment said this week that IS­IS is wa­ging a “cam­paign of gen­o­cide” in Ir­aq. “An en­tire re­li­gion is be­ing ex­term­in­ated from the face of the Earth,” Vi­an Dakhil said Tues­day.

Sev­er­al high-pro­file Re­pub­lic­an of­fice­hold­ers have ex­pressed the need to sup­port the Kur­d­ish people. “If there is one part of Ir­aq that is very im­port­ant to us, it is Kur­distan,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said Fri­day morn­ing at a gath­er­ing of con­ser­vat­ives hos­ted by the web­site Red­State. “The lead­er­ship there, big Chris­ti­an pop­u­la­tion, there are a num­ber of good, le­git­im­ate reas­ons to pro­tect them.”

“The United States is right [to] in­ter­vene in Ir­aq to provide hu­man­it­ari­an as­sist­ance to per­se­cuted re­li­gious minor­it­ies — in­clud­ing the Yazid­is cur­rently sur­roun­ded by IS­IS forces in north­ern Ir­aq and Ir­aqi Chris­ti­ans, who have been bru­tal­ized as IS­IS has swept through their vil­lages,” Sen. Marco Ru­bio said Fri­day.

Sens. John Mc­Cain of Ari­zona and Lind­sey Gra­ham of South Car­o­lina said Thursday night that they agreed with the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s de­cision to provide hu­man­it­ari­an re­lief to the ci­vil­ians stran­ded atop Mount Sin­jar. House Home­land Se­cur­ity Com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Mc­Caul of Texas, said Fri­day that tar­geted air­strikes can help the Yazidi and Chris­ti­an minor­it­ies. “I ap­pre­ci­ate that the ad­min­is­tra­tion fi­nally ac­know­ledges that gen­o­cide against Chris­ti­ans and oth­er minor­it­ies is oc­cur­ring in the re­gion” said Vir­gin­ia Rep. Frank Wolf, a long­time ad­voc­ate for re­li­gious free­dom.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion’s use of the term “gen­o­cide” and law­makers’ calls for pro­tec­tion of re­li­gious minor­it­ies sig­nal the size and scope of a U.S. mis­sion in Ir­aq. The timeline for po­ten­tial fu­ture air-drops of sup­plies re­mains un­clear, but a seni­or ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cial said Thursday that the U.S. is pre­pared for “a long-term ef­fort” against IS­IS.

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