Iraqi tribe seeks political clout
When the 101st Airborne first reached this remote village in Iraq's northwestern Sinjar Mountains in 2003, elderly Yazidi tribesmen were...
The Washington Post
KHARSI, Iraq — When the 101st Airborne first reached this remote village in Iraq's northwestern Sinjar Mountains in 2003, elderly Yazidi tribesmen were thrilled: Their ancient religious prophesy had come true.
"We believed that Jesus Christ was coming with a force from overseas to save us," said the village leader, Khalil Sadoon Haji Jundu, wrapping his gold-trimmed cloak around him against the morning chill.
Scrawled behind him on the wall, images of U.S. helicopters and soldiers depicted the arrival of the fighters awaited by the Yazidi, an obscure sect of sun worshippers with roots in Zoroastrianism who have inhabited the valleys of the Sinjar range for centuries.
But more than two years later, as the Yazidis struggle for a political voice and an escape from the poverty suffered during decades of oppression under President Saddam Hussein, tribesmen such as Jundu say they feel let down.
"We thought you guys were our saviors," Jundu told Lt. Col. Gregory Reilly as the two ate figs and sipped spiced coffee one recent morning. "We still believe it. But we actually thought we'd be helped a little more. We're kind of disappointed."
From subsistence farmers to activists, Yazidis inhabiting the sand-swept highlands near the Syrian border complain that despite new freedoms — including a slot on Iraq's Dec. 15 election ballot — they're still pushed around by bigger, wealthier and more politically powerful groups.
Indeed, one of the central power struggles here is not between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, but between the Kurds, who are Muslims, and the Yazidis. By all accounts, the Kurds are winning.
After Saddam's fall in 2003, Kurdish political parties backed by hundreds of militiamen known as peshmerga rushed to fill a power vacuum in this part of Nineveh province.
"We do have freedom, but the invasion of the Kurds and all their peshmerga and money from the north are overwhelming us," said Soad Hassan Qassim, a Yazidi women's activist in the town of Sununi.
With an estimated several hundred thousand members in Iraq, Yazidis are ethnically related to Kurds but are not Muslim and so eat pork and drink alcohol. Tolerant of other religions, they worship the peacock as a symbol of a powerful angel and sunlight as an expression of God. The women often go without veils and circulate in public.
Qassim and other Yazidi activists say they want their children to learn Arabic but lack the choice because of Kurdish-language schools funded by the dominant Kurdish political parties. They also accuse the Kurdish parties of buying Yazidi votes with offers of jobs and financial assistance.
In downtown Sinjar, behind high dirt barricades constructed after a car bombing, the mayor's office stands a few feet from a huge Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) headquarters heavily guarded by peshmerga in dark-green uniforms.
Mayor Daqhil Qasim Hason, who makes a point of saying he is of the Yazidi faith but is ethnically Kurdish, sat drinking tea with the KDP leader for western Nineveh, Sarbast Omar Hassan Terwanishi.
After decades as an underground movement, the KDP won some 80,000 votes in the Dec. 15 elections, about 75 percent of the total for western Nineveh, compared with about 11,000 for the Yazidi party, according to the parties' tallies.
The mayor and KDP leaders make clear they will fight a U.S.-backed plan to withdraw the up-to-500 peshmerga from Sinjar and western Nineveh as early as next month.
The KDP's political and military sway is matched by its economic impact through investments and aid to the region.
The party has hired 1,200 teachers, rented school buildings and water tanks, and provided medicine and blood to local hospitals. It gives money every month to Sinjar's poorest residents.
Yazidis, meanwhile, are appealing for American support to mediate election disputes and to aid their quest for greater economic independence.
Yazidi families in Kharsi cultivate tiny plots in the Valley of Tiers, traveling by donkey to lowland markets to sell their produce and buy food. The village welcomed Kurdish funds for refurbishing its school. In return, the whole village voted for the KDP in the Dec. 15 election.
"We, the Yazidis, are the weakest people in the world," Jundu said, inviting Reilly to a breakfast of fried eggs, soft cheese, flatbread and honey. "The Americans have the strongest army in the world; you have air power and sea power, and even the land is afraid of you. You are the supreme law — why can't you make things work and help us?"
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.