Bombings signal rising threat for Iraq's ethnic minorities
The US blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq for Tuesday's coordinated suicide bombings that may have killed as many as 400 Yazidis in the worst attack of its kind since the war began.
As the possibility that the death toll from Tuesday's bombings against Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking sect in northwestern Iraq, might top 400, rescue efforts continued in the Sinjar area northwest of Mosul.Skip to next paragraph
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The bombings are likely to constitute the single deadliest attack of the war – an act that drives home the plight of minority groups that, ethnic minority leaders charge, are facing possible genocide.
"The rescue efforts are still ongoing. There are bodies under the rubble. So far, we have at least 400 people killed," says Brig. Gen. Abdel-Karim Khalaf, the spokesman for the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
A spokesman for US forces in northern Iraq confirmed that coalition troops, along with Iraqi security forces and villagers, were still looking for the dead and wounded. He gave a death toll of 175 to 200.
"It's very early, the recovery is still under way," said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly of Task Force Lightning in Mosul, the capital of Nineveh Province.
Gov. Duraid Kashmula, who had surveyed the devastated area Thursday in the company of Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd, put the toll at 220 dead and 390 wounded so far.
The disparities may result from the fact that the dead and wounded were taken to at least six different hospitals in Nineveh and the neighboring semiautonomous Kurdish region, which declared Thursday as a day of mourning.
The attacks involved four trucks packed with between two to five tons of explosives, according to Iraqi officials, and leveled entire sections of the villages of Qahtaniyah, Al-Jazeera, and Tal Uzair in the Sinjar area northwest of Mosul and about 20 miles from Syria.
"More than half of our village has been destroyed, and the rest of the homes are not suitable," said an elderly man on local television, standing amid the devastation of Qahtaniyah, which looked more like the aftermath of an earthquake. "Families are now wandering in the wilderness. We ask the central government for help and compensation."
The strike occurred in one of the most remote and most impoverished parts of the country and targeted an insular ancient community that was battling for survival in an increasingly hostile land. Most were sheepherders or made pickles and arrack, a local alcoholic drink.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq called the attacks an "abominable crime aimed at widening the sectarian and ethnic divide in Iraq." US and Iraqi officials blamed the attacks on Al Qaeda-linked militants on the run from security offensives in Anbar and Diyala provinces, west and northeast of Baghdad, respectively. They said it was similar to the attack last month on the village of Amerli in a remote corner of Salaheddin Province that killed 185, mostly Turkmen Shiites.
Colonel Donnelly said neither Iraqi police nor the Army had a presence in the area. "This is a very remote area in Nineveh, and the security in this part of the province was not a concern as it is in places where the population density is much greater," he said.
Who are the Yazidis?
The Yazidis are a pre-Islamic religious sect whose beliefs include elements of pagan, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Most are ethnic Kurds who choose to live in isolated communities and often face severe poverty.
Small pockets live in Syria, Turkey, Georgia, and Armenia, but most of the world's estimated 100,000 to 400,000 Yazidis live in northern Iraq.
Much of the Yazidi tradition is still held secret. The group worships an angel figure, the Peacock Angel, which some Christians and Muslims believe is the devil. The Yazidis, who claim not to believe in evil or the devil, deny this characterization. The group considers marriage outside its faith a sin punishable by ostracism or death.
Sources: The Essential Middle East, Associated Press