US: Militias need to leave Yezidi areas

Speaking on Sunday to the Yazda-Zovighian webinar marking the sixth anniversary of the Yezidi genocide, Joey Hood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, expressed America’s firm opposition to the presence of irregular forces in Yezidi areas of Iraq.

The Yezidi organization, Yazda, along with the Beirut-based, The Zovighian Partnership, which promotes socio-economic advancement in the Middle East, marked the sixth anniversary of ISIS’ genocidal assault on the Yezidis, with an important two-day webinar earlier this week. This is the first of two reports on the event. 

WASHINGTON DC (Kurdistan 24) – Speaking on Sunday to the Yazda-Zovighian webinar marking the sixth anniversary of the Yezidi genocide, Joey Hood, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, expressed America’s firm opposition to the presence of irregular forces in Yezidi areas of Iraq.

Hood identified “the presence of armed groups outside the control of the central government” as “the main reason Yezidis cannot return home.”

That is, indeed, the view of local officials. As the mayor of Sinjar (Shingal), Mahma Khalil, stated on Monday, "Although six years have passed since the terrible genocide campaign against the Yezidis by ISIS, returning home is still slow because of the lack of security and services and the absence of the federal [Iraqi] government’s support.” 

Read More: 80 percent of Yezidi territories are unsafe for the IDPs to return: Official

Hood recalled his visit to the Yezidi town of Kocho the year before, when he was Deputy Chief of the US mission in Iraq, to commemorate the opening of the first mass grave of Yezidis killed by ISIS.

“I was shocked to find Hashd al-Shaabi flags flying more prominently than the flag of the state of Iraq,” he said.

Hood also criticized the ongoing conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that takes place in Yezidi areas.

“It pains me every time to hear Turkish jets bombing PKK targets in Sinjar,” he stated.

That is a view widely shared by Yezidis themselves. On Sunday, the “House of Yezidis” a Sinjar political group, held a demonstration to demand that the PKK leave their area. 

Read More: Yezidi House asks Iraq, international community to oust PKK from Sinjar 

Insecurity in the Yezidi areas freed from ISIS is a long-standing problem. It was noted last year in a report by the Pentagon’s Inspector General, and Kurdistan 24 discussed it then with Sam Brownback, Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, who, the year before, had visited northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.

“The United States has put over $300 million” into reconstruction in the Nineveh Plains region, and others have contributed funds as well, Brownback explained, “but it won’t be sustainable in the long term or grow, until the security issue is dealt with, and that’s the one we’re still lacking—a robust security answer to the problem.” 

Read More: US Envoy hails religious tolerance of Kurds, stresses need for Peshmerga, ISF security coordination 

US officials are tracking that issue, and, perhaps, doing so more vigorously than in the past. ISIS’ initial assault occurred in 2014, under the Barack Obama administration. Obama sought an understanding with Iran (which he secured in the 2015 nuclear deal), and his administration was accommodating of Iranian influence in Iraq, which translated into accommodating Iran’s proxies there.

Although Donald Trump took the opposite position and strongly opposed the Iranian nuclear deal, the policy of accommodating Iran in Iraq did not really change until a year into his presidency, when John Bolton replaced H.R. McMaster as National Security Advisor in April 2018 and Mike Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State around the same time.

Referring to the presence of armed groups in the Yezidi areas, Hood told the webinar, “We’ve been encouraged by the assurances of [Iraqi Prime Minister] Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his government’s engagement with Yezidi representatives.”

“Political leaders in Baghdad and Erbil and throughout the country need to work together to create a political environment that allows all components to feel safe and dignified,” he continued.

“This means putting security in the hands of professional security forces, including and especially, locally recruited police—police who are from the area and who will protect and serve their communities—not armed groups from some other location,” Hood affirmed. “That means implementing real governance that empowers the local community and brings back essential services.”

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) shares that position. It supports “devolving power” and “establishing a province in Sinjar for the people of Sinjar to manage their own affairs,” as KRG Minister Falah Mustafa, Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the President of the Kurdistan Region, had told the same webinar a few hours earlier.

The US Ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, also addressed the group and described the assistance that the US has given to help minority communities in northern Iraq ravaged by ISIS.

“To date, the US government has provided more than $470 million” in aid “to support religious and ethnic minorities in Iraq,” Tueller stated.

That has included “the provision of supplies to the Sinjar General Hospital,” as well as “the rehabilitation of key irrigation wells” and projects such as school reconstruction.

“A year ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Lalish temple,” Tueller said. It is the Yezidis’ holiest site and is located in the Kurdistan Region, in Duhok Province.

“At that time, I announced the grant from the State Department of $500,000,” Tueller continued,” and “today, I am pleased to announce that we are contributing an additional $500,000 for the restoration and stabilization of that important site.”

Tueller also stressed the importance of securing justice for the Yezidis. “The full renewal of civic and religious life in Sinjar can only be achieved through justice and accountability,” he affirmed.

“To that end, we are also supporting the United Nations investigative team to promote accountability for crimes committed by Daesh,” he said, as the ambassador concluded by stressing a point that had been made earlier by Falah Mustafa and was made later by Joey Hood.

“Our support and that of the international community must be accompanied by progress to establish a local government and security mechanism that enjoys the full confidence and support of Yezidis,” Tueller said. “I urge Iraq and the international community to make this a priority moving forward.”

Editing by John J. Catherine