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Originally published August 12, 2014 at 9:51 PM | Page modified August 13, 2014 at 5:14 PM

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Syrian Kurds come to the rescue of besieged Iraqi minority

While the U.S. and Iraqi military have struggled to aid the starving members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority with supply drops from the air, the Syrian Kurds took it on themselves to rescue them.


The Associated Press

How to help

Catholic Relief Services (CRS) is providing humanitarian aid to 3,500 displaced Iraqi families in the Ninewa province. CRS works in close partnership with Caritas Iraq and is establishing a new joint office in Irbil, in addition to three locations in northern Iraq. emergencies.crs.org/iraq-crs-caritas-reach-displaced-families/

Mercy Corps, based in Portland, has already reached more than 20,000 people with emergency supplies and will continue to distribute essential supplies such as tents, dry-food rations and kitchen sets to civilians in need. Mercy Corps has operated continuously in Iraq since 2003, providing humanitarian and development assistance to 5 million Iraqis. To support Mercy Corps’ response to the Iraq crisis, donate at www.mercycorps.org/donate/.

Key developments

New leader backed: In a rare accord, Iran joined the United States in endorsing premier-designate Haidar al-Abadi to lead neighboring Iraq, instead of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to break a three-month stalemate. Maliki has called Abadi’s appointment “legally worthless,” but told military leaders not to act against other officials.

New attacks: U.S. military planes continued to attack, striking an insurgent mortar position north of Sinjar, as Iraqi forces retook two villages from the Islamic State in Diyala province north of Baghdad on Tuesday. Kurdish military forces, known as peshmerga, have begun receiving small-arms ammunition directly from the United States, and France, Britain and Italy are pushing to approve arms deliveries to the Kurds, a move Germany has indicated it could support.

Chopper crashes: A helicopter carrying aid from Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous government to stranded Yazidi refugees in the Sinjar mountains of northern Iraq crashed Tuesday, killing the pilot and injuring other passengers, including a Yazidi member of parliament and a New York Times reporter. Alissa J. Rubin, The Times’ Paris bureau chief and a longtime war correspondent, apparently suffered a concussion, at least one broken wrist and possibly some broken ribs but was conscious. Adam Ferguson, 35, a freelance photographer working for The Times who was accompanying Rubin, said via text message that he suffered a sore jaw and some minor bumps.

More U.S. troops: Another 130 U.S. troops arrived in Iraq on Tuesday, Marines and special operations forces whose mission is to assess the situation in the Sinjar area and to develop additional aid options. The 130 are in addition to 90 U.S. military advisers already in Baghdad and 160 in a pair of operations centers — one in Irbil and one in Baghdad — working with Iraqi security forces. Also, there are about 455 U.S. security forces and 100 military personnel working in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

Seattle Times news services

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The U.S Military have not struggled to aid the starving members of Iraq's Yazidi minority. The U.S. President,... MORE
The bravery of the Kurds humiliates BHO. The man needs to put the putter down, leave Marthas Vinyard, and get engaged.... MORE
Interesting that while this article refers often to the antagonist Islamic State and points out that the Yazidis... MORE

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MALIKIYA, Syria — In a dusty camp here, Iraqi refugees have new heroes: Syrian Kurdish fighters who battled extremists to carve out an escape route for tens of thousands trapped on a mountaintop.

While the U.S. and Iraqi military have struggled to aid the starving members of Iraq’s Yazidi minority with supply drops from the air, the Syrian Kurds took it on themselves to rescue them. The move underlined how they — like Iraqi Kurds — are using the region’s conflicts to establish their own rule.

For the past few days, fighters have been rescuing Yazidis from the mountain, transporting them into Syrian territory to give them first aid, food and water and returning some to Iraq via a pontoon bridge.

The Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority who follow an ancient Mesopotamian faith, started to flee to the Sinjar mountain chain Aug. 2, when fighters from the extremist Islamic State group took over their nearby villages. The fighters see them as heretics worthy of death.

“The (Kurdish fighters) opened a path for us. If they had not, we would still be stranded on the mountain,” said Ismail Rashu, 22, in the Newroz camp in the Syrian Kurdish town of Malikiya some 20 miles from the Iraqi border.

Families had filled the battered, dusty tents here, and new arrivals sat in the shade of rocks, sleeping on blue plastic sheets. Camp officials estimated that at least 2,000 families sought shelter there Sunday evening.

Nearby, an exhausted woman rocked a baby to sleep. Another sobbed that she had abandoned her elderly uncle in their village of Zouraba; he was too weak to walk, too heavy to carry.

Many said they hadn’t eaten for days on the mountain; their lips were cracked from dehydration and heat, their feet swollen and blackened from walking. Some elderly, disabled and young children were left behind. Others were still walking to where Syrian Kurds were rescuing them, they said.

“We are thankful, from our heads to the sky, to the last day on Earth,” said Naji Hassan, a Yazidi at the Tigris River border crossing, where thousands of rescued Yazidis were heading back into Iraq on Sunday.

The U.N. estimated around 50,000 Yazidis fled to the mountain. But by Sunday, Kurdish officials said at least 45,000 had crossed through the safe passage, leaving thousands more behind and suggesting the number of stranded was higher.

Syrian Kurds have carved out effective self-rule in the northeastern corner of Syria, where they make up the majority. But while members of the ethnic group in both Iraq and Syria pursue their destiny, the two communities are divided by political splits.

Iraq’s Kurds, who have managed a self-rule territory for more than two decades, are dominated by factions that have built up strong ties with neighboring Turkey. Syria’s Kurds, however, are closer to longtime Turkish Kurdish rebels and until the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad were firmly under his control.

Syrian Kurdish officials said that soon after Yazidis fled their villages, they began fighting to create a safe passage. They clashed with Islamic State fighters upon entering Iraq, losing at least nine fighters, but by Aug. 7 had secured a safe valley passage, cramming Yazidis into jeeps, trucks and cars to bring them some 25 miles away. Some of the ill were even rushed to a hospital.

“We answered their cries for help. They were in danger, and we opened a safe passage for them into safety,” military official Omar Ali said. “We saw that we had to help them and protect them; they are Kurds and part of our nation.”

In saving Yazidis, Syrian Kurds were also demonstrating their own ambitions for independence as Syria’s civil war rages on.

They announced their autonomous area of Rojava in January, and rule several far northeastern Kurdish areas of Syria. Government forces stationed in the area were redeployed more than two years ago to battle rebels seeking Assad’s overthrow, Syrian Kurdish officials said.

But in entering Iraq, the Syrian fighters are also challenging their Iraqi Kurdish rivals. They say they entered after the Iraqi Kurdish fighting force, called the peshmerga, fled Yazidi villages after short battles with Islamic fighters. The peshmerga say they were outgunned by the extremists.

The United States has since assisted the peshmerga fighters with airstrikes, and on Tuesday, a U.S. drone strike destroyed a mortar position threatening Kurdish forces defending refugees near the Syrian border.

A day earlier, the United States said it would provide more weapons directly to Kurdish forces, but it was unclear what materiel was under consideration. Later Tuesday, the Iraqi military said a helicopter delivering aid to the displaced had crashed.

For now, with the peshmerga gone and state aid ineffective, the Yazidis who survived the mountaintop ordeal were counting on the Syrian Kurdish fighters. Covered in dust at the Tigris crossing, Hassan said without the fighters all would have been lost.

“Were it not for them, no Yazidi would be saved,” he said.



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