Political rivalries split Iraq’s Yazidis

As the fight against ISIL continues, rival Kurdish parties attempt to win the loyalty of the Yazidi religious group.

Yazidi community
Yazidis still try to come to terms with the aftermath of ISIL's brutal assault [AP]

Mount Sinjar, Iraq – Sporting a thick, black-dyed moustache and sipping sweet tea, Qassim Shesho projects an air of authority as he sits in a large hall surrounded by dozens of Yazidi fighters.

Just a few dozen metres away stand two domes, marking the Sheikh Sherfeddin shrine, one of the holiest sites for members of the Yazidi faith.

Shesho and his fighters appear relaxed. The western side of Mount Sinjar, where the shrine is located, has been largely quiet since a siege by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) was lifted last December by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, backed by US-led coalition air strikes. ISIL’s forces are now concentrated on the eastern side of the rugged range.                

“They launched 16 attacks to reach the shrine,” said Shesho. “But we repelled them every time they tried.” By the time the siege was lifted, ISIL’s assault had killed hundreds of Yazidis, and many were abducted by the armed group.

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As Yazidis strive to come to terms with the aftermath of ISIL’s brutal assault, political struggles among major Kurdish parties in Iraq and their Yazidi affiliates have divided the community here.

Shesho is a rising star in the local branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), one of the two major Iraqi Kurdish parties which is headed by Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan. He stayed behind and fought ISIL militants at a time when many local officials chose to flee.

Shesho’s nephew, Haidar, is another revered figure among Yazidis for his prominent role in defending


by ”Qassim

area’s population, but our role did not exceed 20 to 30 percent in administering this area before last August.”]

Sherfeddin shrine and Mount Sinjar as well.

Last April, he was detained briefly by the Kurdish government in the northern city of Dohuk on charges of receiving assistance from Shia paramilitarieswhich have been carrying out much of the fighting against ISIL in central Iraq. He was released only after he agreed to stop doing so.

Both the Kurdish government – and many ordinary Kurds – view Shia paramilitaries as a potential threat and worry the armed Shia groups could pose a security challenge after ISIL is defeated in Iraq.  

Haidar is an official with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the other major Kurdish party headed by former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani. But he says he plans to establish a party of his own to play a role in rebuilding Sinjar, when – and if- ISIL is expelled.

In addition to the military fight against ISIL in Sinjar, a political battle has been brewing for months among various Kurdish and Yazidi groups here.

At the centre of the political conflict are the KDP, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an armed Kurdish group that has fought against Turkish security forces for more than three decades but now seeks a peace deal with Ankara, and their respective Yazidi affiliates.

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Until ISIL’s onslaught on Sinjar last August, the KDP was solidly in charge of the area. But its standing with the Yazidi community has received a major blow as many blame what they say was the incompetence of KDP’s local political and military officials for the fall of Sinjar in 2014.

Since then, the PKK has tried to carve a foothold by presenting itself as the saviour of Yazidis, challenging the KDP’s attempts to restore its authority and credibility in the area.

After Kurdish fighters initially abandoned Sinjar in the wake of ISIL’s offensive last August, the PKK and affiliated forces opened a humanitarian corridor, rescuing thousands of endangered Yazidis who were stranded on top of Mount Sinjar.

That gained the group enormous respect among Yazidis. Many Yazidis are still quick to credit “God and PKK” for their deliverance from ISIL.

In a departure from its past policies, the KDP has recently been giving larger roles to local Yazidis – such as promoting people like Shesho to be its point man in the area. Given the presence of other powerful rivals, the KDP efforts appear to be aimed at maintaining its influence within the Yazidi community.

Before ISIL attacked, KDP had – disproportionately – given senior political and military posts in Sinjar to Kurds, some of whom came from outside the area. But now it appears to be trying to appease local Yazidis by giving them a bigger role.

“We, Yazidis, constitute 85 percent of the [Sinjar] area’s population, but our role did not exceed 20 to 30 percent in administering this area before last August,” said Shesho.

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Although the fight against a common enemy, ISIL, has brought together various Kurdish and Yazidi armed groups, power struggles – and occasionally hostile rhetoric – indicate that tensions will likely intensify if ISIL is pushed out of the area. 

Meanwhile, various groups are espousing their visions for Sinjar’s post-ISIL future. A pro-PKK Yazidi organisation convened a meeting on Mount Sinjar in January and laid out plans for self-rule in the area. Many charged that it was an attempt to duplicate the autonomous entities, known as cantons, that pro-PKK Kurds have set up in northern Syria. The PKK has rejected those accusations.

The PKK plans have been met with stiff rejections not only from KDP, but also from those like Haidar 

Yazidi woman talks about ISIL captivity

who are outside of the KDP camp.  

“I thank PKK and its affiliated groups for their role in Sinjar, and the tens of their fighters who died for Sinjar,” Haidar told Al Jazeera in a phone interview. “But if they try to impose themselves or their views, I don’t see that as a right thing… It will be detrimental to Sinjar’s people in the future.”

His uncle, Shesho, agrees that the area’s governance needs to be reformed. “I’ve asked the Kurdistan government and the president [Massoud Barzani] that the control of the area should be given to the people of this area,” Shesho said.

He had strong words for the PKK: “If they decide to stay here, what they will lose will be more than what they will gain.”

Sinjar might become free from ISIL one day, but it will likely be just the beginning of a long power struggle between powerful Kurdish groups and their local Yazidi affiliates.   

“Our objective is for the current unity to continue after ISIL is removed,” said Dilshir Herekul, a senior commander of a Yazidi force known as Sinjar Resistance Units, set up by PKK and its Syrian Kurdish affiliate, YPG. “But no one can really predict whether that unity will persist after ISIL.”

Source: Al Jazeera