With approximately 3,000 Yazidi women still in Islamist militants’ captivity, the persecuted minority from Mount of Sinjar in northern Iraq increasingly want more autonomy as they lose faith in the squabbling governments in Baghdad and Erbil.
The semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan did not attempt to instantly repel the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which overran Mount Sinjar in Aug. 2014, leaving thousands of Yazidis - mostly women and children - enslaved.
They felt betrayed as they considered themselves part of Kurdistan, sharing a common language and culture.
Meanwhile, the central government in Baghdad has failed to protect many of its citizens, including the Yazidis, from ISIS.
While both Baghdad and Erbil - capital of Kurdistan - have not been effective in protecting this small minority, both continuously compete for its support.
“We would like to have control of our local forces. The Yazidis would like to lead their forces in Sinjar,” said Murad Ismael, Board Director and co-founder of Yazda, a global Yazidi organization based in the U.S.
Saib Khidir, a Baghdad-based Yazidi lawyer and minority rights activist, said minorities “have lost trust” in Baghdad and Erbil, which could only be regained with “international guarantees.”
Vying for influence
Baghdad and Erbil compete to have minorities on their side, since they hail from territories disputed between the two governments.
Unable to gain more arms for Yazidis from Kurdistan, one of the community’s leading military commanders, Haider Shasho, was arrested by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in April for joining the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU).
The PMU was formed from Shiite armed groups and volunteers after a religious edict by the spiritual leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, calling on Iraqis to fight ISIS.
The volunteer forces include four brigades that are not Shiite - one Sunni, two Christian and one Yazidi.
They have garnered a reputation for being hard-hitting fighters who recaptured Tikrit, the home city of late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Shasho, who formed the independent Protection Forces of Sinjar (HPS), joined Kurdish forces - the peshmerga - promptly after his release.
Since then, Khidir said, “Yazidi influence in the PMU has decreased, and so has PMU influence.”
Shasho’s deputy Dawood Jundy has described “harassment” by the security apparatus of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of those who want to join the HPS.
“We have cut our relationship with Baghdad on the basis of promises that were given to us by Kurdistan to prep our forces,” said Jundy, who heads the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) bloc in Nineveh governorate.
Jundy said the idea to form the HPS came before the fall of Shingal to ISIS, but the former became effective on the ground when ISIS attacks on Shingal, Zumar, Rabiaa and other areas in Mosul in Aug. 2014 left thousands abducted, wounded or killed.
However, with no political party solely representing the Yazidis, their work as an independent militia could not be sustained, making them a great prize for the PMU, which gave them what they needed.
“We did establish a relationship with Baghdad through the PMU,” said Jundy, adding that the HPS is now made up of 2,700 Yazidi fighters.
“We had salaries and allocations made for our troops, but Erbil didn’t accept it and launched an arrest campaign on our field commanders.”
Meanwhile, Yazidis mull unity among various Iraqi forces, includingg Kurds, as a way to defeat ISIS. “We’re fighting a brutal machine and we need to be unified,” Ismael said.
Khidir criticized Baghdad and Erbil for delaying much-needed help to 150-200 Yazidi women who recently escaped ISIS.
Western NGOs have undertaken efforts to take them abroad for rehabilitation, but they need the proper paperwork.
“We go to Baghdad, they say her passport must be dealt with in Dohuk,” said Khidir. “We go to Dohuk, they say she needs more papers, including that of her father,” who is still in ISIS-controlled territory.