Yazidis caught in “political football” between Baghdad, Iraqi Kurds

The land that Yazidis have lived on for centuries is caught up in a tug of war between Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds, who had controlled it since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. (Reuters)
Updated 10 December 2017

Yazidis caught in “political football” between Baghdad, Iraqi Kurds

SINJAR, Iraq: Since Iraqi forces pushed the Kurds out of the Yazidis’ mountainous heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq in October, residents are wondering what could happen to them next. Food and money are in short supply since aid organizations stopped delivery after Iraq’s advance. Buildings collapsed in the fighting and of those still standing, many are marked with bullets and littered with IEDs. Water and electricity barely work.
The Yazidis, whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions, have long been viewed with suspicion and repeatedly persecuted by other groups in Iraq.
In 2014, more than 3,000 were killed by Daesh militants in a campaign described by the UN as genocidal.
Now the land they have lived on for centuries is caught up in a tug of war between Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds, who had controlled it since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
“We’re trapped in this game of political football, between Iraq and the Kurds,” said a Yazidi resident of Sinjar, Kamal Ali. “But neither of them cares about our future.”
The militias have hoisted Iraq’s tricolor flag over government buildings and any remaining Kurdish flags have been scrawled over with the words “Iraq” and “Allahu Akbar,” the blazing sun at its center scribbled over in black marker.
Sinjar is politically important because it’s in the disputed territories, ethnically mixed areas across northern Iraq, long the subject of a constitutional dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds, who both claim them.
Sinjar fell under the Kurds’ control, despite lying outside Iraqi Kurdistan’s recognized borders.
Baghdad did little to challenge the arrangement until its October offensive, launched to punish the Kurds for their September 25 independence referendum. Iraqi forces have seized the disputed areas the Kurds had expanded into including Sinjar.
The referendum reignited long-simmering tensions over geographic dominance in the oil-rich north, between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), who fought side by side to defeat Daesh.
The Yazidis are divided about what should happen now.
Some are glad the Kurds have gone and see an opportunity for increased autonomy now that they are under federal control following the offensive by Iraq’s security forces last October. Kurdish forces handed over Sinjar without a fight to the Lalesh Brigades, a Yazidi militia backed by Baghdad’s Shiite paramilitary forces (PMF).
Most Yazidis speak a Kurdish dialect, but many don’t see themselves as ethnically Kurdish.
“We’re happy the Kurds have left,” said Abu Sardar, a 47-year-old Yazidi man. “We’re Yazidis we’re not Kurds, we do not want to be part of Kurdistan.”
Like others, Abu Sardar complained that the Kurds forced him to vote in the Kurdish referendum, accusations the KRG denies.
He returned two months ago to the ruins of his home in the Sinuni district of Sinjar and expressed bitter disappointment that little had changed since he left in 2014: hospitals and schools remain shuttered while the city is still mostly rubble.
He hopes that Baghdad and its militias will rebuild Sinjar.
Others lament the Kurds’ departure.
The KRG and allied Yazidi groups hold former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki responsible for the campaign by Daesh. They say his troops’ desertion of Mosul allowed militants to capture billions of dollars in weapons later used to attack the minority.
Yazidi commander Qassem Shesho says Iraq’s government is too sectarian and dislikes the Yazidis as much as Daesh.
Like many others, he blames the Kurds for the attack by Daesh.
“But they’re all we’ve got,” he said.
Shesho is allied to Iraqi Kurdistan’s ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, even though the Kurds cut his fighters’ salaries after the Lalesh Brigades took over Sinjar.
Some days, residents say, there are only bones in Sinjar. Nearly 50 mass graves have been uncovered outside the town since 2014.
“Sinjar is a city of ghosts,” said the Lalesh Brigades’ leader Ali Serhan Eissa, also known as Khal Ali.
Tens of thousands of Yazidis fled the militant onslaught and headed for Mount Sinjar. Of those who didn’t reach the mountain, about 3,100 were killed – with more than half shot, beheaded, burned alive and disposed of in mass graves.
Others were sold into sexual slavery or forced to fight, according to a report by the Public Library of Science journal PLoS Medicine.
Some are still on the mountain, about to spend a third freezing winter in tents.
Before the attack, Sinjar was home to about 400,000 people – mainly Yazidis and Arab Sunnis. Only 15 percent of Yazidis have returned home, according to humanitarian estimates.
Most Yazidis remain in IDP camps in the Kurdistan region, along with most of the area’s displace Sunnis. Aid workers worry the camps will be closed if tensions between Baghdad and the Kurds flare up.
The presence of fighters from Turkey’s separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) further complicates the picture. Many Yazidis credit them with opening up a land route to allow those stranded on Mount Sinjar to escape the militants in 2014.
The PKK entrenched itself in the community, even creating a local unit, the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) which controls multiple checkpoints around Sinjar.
Turkey and neighboring Iran are closely watching the power shift in Sinjar.
Tehran wants to secure this north-western region of Iraq as it sits on the border with Syria, while Turkey wants the region free of the outlawed PKK.


Trump plan calls for Palestinian state with capital in eastern Jerusalem

Updated 1 min 28 sec ago

Trump plan calls for Palestinian state with capital in eastern Jerusalem

  • United States will recognize Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank
  • The absence of the Palestinians from Trump’s announcement is likely to fuel criticism that the plan tilts toward Israel

WASHINGTON: US President Donald Trump on Tuesday proposed creation of a Palestinian state with a capital in eastern Jerusalem, dependent on Palestinians taking steps to become self-governing, in an effort to achieve a peace breakthrough in their decades of conflict with Israel.
Senior administration officials, briefing Reuters on the plan the president announced at the White House, said that under Trump’s proposed Middle East peace plan the United States will recognize Israeli settlements on the occupied West Bank.

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Read the full report here: Middle East peace plan

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In exchange, Israel would agree to accept a four-year freeze on new settlement activity while Palestinian statehood is negotiated.
“Today, Israel has taken a giant step toward peace,” Trump said as he announced the plan at the White House with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at his side, saying he also sent a letter about it to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
“This is a historic day,” Netanyahu said, comparing Trump’s peace plan to former President Harry Truman’s 1948 recognition of the state of Israel. “On this day, you became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria that are vital to our security and central to our heritage,” he added, using the Biblical names for the West Bank.
While Israeli leaders have welcomed Trump’s long-delayed plan, Palestinian leaders had rejected it even before its official release, saying his administration was biased toward Israel.
The absence of the Palestinians from Trump’s announcement is likely to fuel criticism that the plan tilts toward Israel’s needs rather than those of the Palestinians.


Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down in 2014, and it was far from clear that the Trump plan will resuscitate them.
US officials said they were braced for initial Palestinian skepticism but hoped that over time they will agree to negotiate. The plan places high hurdles for the Palestinians to overcome to reach their long-sought goal of a state.
It remains to be seen also how Israel responds, given the pressures its right-wing prime minister, Netanyahu, faces going into his third attempt at re-election in less than a year.
The US plan represented the most dramatic and detailed attempt to break the historic deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians in several years, the result of a three-year effort by Trump senior advisers Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz and former adviser Jason Greenblatt.
Trump has endorsed a proposed map outlining the two states, the officials said. The Palestinian state would be double the size of land that Palestinians currently control and would be connected by roads, bridges and tunnels, the official said.
Trump briefed Netanyahu and his rival in Israel’s March 2 elections, Blue and White Party chief Benny Gantz, in talks on Monday.
Asked what Washington was prepared to do to advance negotiations, the officials said it was up to the Palestinians to come forward and to say they are prepared to negotiate.
They said both Netanyahu and Gantz had said they were willing to support the effort.
Israeli leaders have agreed to negotiate on the basis of the Trump plan and agreed to the map, the officials said. Israel’s agreement on statehood for Palestinians is dependent on a security arrangement to protect Israelis, they said.
Israel will also take steps to ensure Muslim access to Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem and respect Jordan’s role regarding holy sites, the officials said.
Palestinian statehood would be dependent on Palestinians taking steps for self-government, such as respect for human rights, freedom of the press and having transparent and credible institutions, the officials said.
“In doing the map it’s incredibly difficult to try to create contiguity for a Palestinian state based on what’s happened over the past 25 years so if we don’t do this freeze now I think that their chance to ever have a state basically goes away,” said one official in reference to the growth of Jewish settlements.
“So what we’ve done is basically we’ve bought four more years for them to get their act together and try to negotiate a deal for them to become a state, and I think this is a huge opportunity for them,” the official said.
The official said the question for Palestinians is will they “come to the table and negotiate?“
If they agree to negotiate, there are some areas that can be compromised in the future, the official said without offering details.
Trump’s plan calls for Palestinians to be able to return to a future state of Palestine and creates a “generous compensation fund,” the official said.
About Israel retaining the settlements, a US official said: “The plan is based on a principle that people should not have to move to accomplish peace ... But it does stop future settlement expansion which we consider to be the most realistic approach.
“The notion that hundreds of thousands of people, or tens of thousands of people, are going to be removed either forcibly or not from their homes is just not worth entertaining,” the official said.
Before the Trump announcement, thousands of Palestinians demonstrated in Gaza City and Israeli troops reinforced positions near a flashpoint site between the Palestinian city of Ramallah and the Jewish settlement of Beit El in the West Bank.
A Netanyahu spokesman said the Israeli leader would fly to Moscow on Wednesday to brief Russian President Vladimir Putin on the proposals.
Palestinian leaders had said they were not invited to Washington, and that no plan could work without them.
On Monday Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would not agree to any deal that did not secure a two-state solution. That formula, the basis for many years of frustrated international peace efforts, envisages Israel co-existing with a Palestinian state.
Palestinians have refused to deal with the Trump administration in protest at such pro-Israeli policies as its moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, whose eastern half the Palestinians seek for a future capital.
The Trump administration in November reversed decades of US policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Washington no longer regarded the settlements on West Bank land as a breach of international law. Palestinians and most countries view the settlements as illegal, which Israel disputes.
Both Trump and Netanyahu face political challenges at home. Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges.
On Tuesday Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on corruption charges, after he withdrew his bid for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.
Both men deny any wrongdoing.