Islamic State: Why ethnic reconciliation is a tough sell in northern Iraq

Jihadists are on the defensive in battleground states in Iraq, but the mistrust and fear engendered by their murderous campaign present a tough challenge to future cohabitation. 

Ari Jalal/Reuters
A displaced boy from the minority Yazidi sect, who fled violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar, walks at a refugee camp in Duhok province, Iraq, on Jan. 2, 2016.

When Islamic State fighters gathered Yazidi men in the village of Kujo, lined them up and shot them, the killers weren’t foreigners, says survivor Kichi Amo Slo. They were from the next village. 

“I knew them personally,” says Mr. Slo, the only one of 10 brothers in his family to have survived the 2014 massacre. “People say they were foreigners, but it’s not true – they had been our friends.”

Slo, a former officer in the Iraqi Army, says he cannot imagine reconciliation with anyone in the neighboring Arab villages. “If you saw someone kill your father, kill your brother, and take your children, could you ever live with them?” he asks in Arabic. “Impossible.”

If Iraqis can envision any future as a unified country after years of internal strife and conflict with jihadist insurgencies, achieving reconciliation between tribes and ethnicities looms as a major hurdle. Yet, even as Islamic State (IS) forces are being pushed back in Iraq, communities are being pulled apart.

With IS in retreat in the north and west of Iraq, one of the biggest challenges is how to mend relations between communities and tribes who joined the group, or were perceived to have supported it, and those who were the jihadists’ victims.

Although IS mainly targets religious minorities and Shia Muslims, the group also declared war against fellow Sunnis who joined Iraqi government forces in Anbar Province. In deeply conservative Anbar, upholding tribal honor for the victims requires money or revenge.

“Enforcing the law is the foundation of reconciliation,” says Anbar’s governor, Suhaib al-Rawi, in Baghdad. “If we have money to compensate people, this will greatly forward the reconciliation process. We would compensate people who have suffered because of ISIS so they don’t take revenge.”

An unimaginable step 

For the Yazidis, returning home and reconciling with their neighbors seems unimaginable. Moreover, their difficulties with neighboring communities predate the IS insurgency and are entwined with the complex politics of northern Iraq.   

“Reconciliation is very complicated and it doesn’t occur in the beginning of the process of recovery,” says Barbara Hamm, founder of the Victims of Violence program at Harvard Medical School, during a visit here.

“There are so many ways to live together,” says Dr. Hamm. “Some of them are side by side, some of them are joined, and we are not always going to reach the kind of relationship that you or I might want.”

Saddam Hussein’s campaign to Arabize the nation’s Kurds and other minorities meant that ethnically Kurdish Yazidis of the Ninevah plains couldn't register land in their name. And their traditional reticence – born of a history of repeated massacres and hostility towards their ancient religion – left them without a political base in the larger Kurdish struggle for autonomy.

Both Iraqi government forces and Kurdish forces that had pledged to protect the Yazidis retreated when IS invaded from Syria, leaving them to be slaughtered and enslaved on Sinjar mountain. President Obama cited these massacres in August 2014 when he authorized US airstrikes in Iraq. Several thousand Yazidi women are believed to be still held captive by IS. 

“Now it is too early,” says Mohammad Ihsan, a former human rights minister in the Kurdish regional government. “They need to reconcile within themselves first … They need to sort out whether they are going to be part of the Kurdistan region or with the Iraqi government.”

This land is our land 

Before the IS onslaught, Sinjar, part of the Yazidi homeland, was governed by the Iraqi province of Ninevah and its capital, Mosul. Part of a large swath of territory claimed both by the Iraqi central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq, it is now under Kurdish control.

“The issue is land in my opinion,” says Jamil Khider, head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Sinjar. “Between the Arabs and the Yazidis there needs to be a demarcation line, otherwise they will never accept Arabs who have committed crimes against them and they will take revenge against them.”

According to Yazidi figures, the Sinjar region is only three percent Arab and 84 percent Yazidi. But some of the Arab villages spawned the most virulent Al Qaeda and later, IS, supporters, who believe it is their religious duty to kill those who don’t share the same ideology. “It is only three percent, but they are killers and believers,” says a former senior Kurdish official.

Activists promoting reconciliation say that while governments need to ensure security for displaced people and try those accused of crimes, it’s the communities themselves that have to take responsibility for repairing relations and forgiving past wrongs.    

For now, however, human rights groups say they have documented isolated cases of revenge killings against Arabs by the increasingly militarized Yazidi community, and say they fear more.

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