Iraq’s beleaguered religious minorities know who their enemies are. It’s their "friends" they aren’t so sure about.
Christians and Yezidi, under constant siege from ISIS, accuse their erstwhile allies, the Kurds, of double-crossing them. With the U.S., Baghdad and the international community doing little to help them, the groups increasingly believe their only chance at surviving in their historic homeland is to stand up for themselves.
“No one is protecting the minorities, they are all only protecting their own interests,” a representative from the global advocacy group Stand with Assyria told FoxNews.com.
Iraq’s Yezidi and Christians have been under attack from ISIS since June 2014, with many of their villages within the Nineveh plains taken over by the black-clad jihadist army. Women from both groups have been sold into sexual slavery or buried in mass graves, while men have been summarily executed.
“There is a sense that the major powers in Iraq – the U.S.A., the Baghdad government and the KRG – do not view them as having sufficient value to justify the sacrifice of their own blood and treasure.”
- John Eibner, Christians Solidarity International
Prior to June 2014, the groups enjoyed the protection of the Kurdish Peshmerga. But when the Kurdish fighters abruptly withdrew from the region, Christians were overrun and scattered for their lives. According to Stand with Assyria, the Kurds went from protecting Christians and Yezidis to demanding their loyalty and then leaving them defenseless.
“Assyrians and other minorities must have their own forces and do have their own forces but, unfortunately, the Kurdish Regional Government is stopping them from taking part in the battle against ISIS unless they declare obedience to the KRG and the Peshmerga,” the representative said.
Population figures for Iraq’s religious minorities were elusive even before hundreds of thousands were killed or displaced by ISIS. A 2012 U.S. State Department report placed the Christian population at between 400,000 and 850,000, two-thirds of whom were Chaldeans (an eastern affiliate of the Catholic church) and the remainder of whom were Assyrians, Syrians, Armenians, Anglicans and Protestants.
The same report put Iraq’s Yezidi population at between 500,000 and 700,000, most of which lived in the northern Nineveh Province. Some estimates have both populations dwindling as low as a combined 250,000 in the face of ISIS’ relentless and brutal persecution. And the smaller their numbers, the less they seem to matter, say advocates.
“There is a sense that the major powers in Iraq – the U.S.A., the Baghdad government and the KRG – do not view them as having sufficient value to justify the sacrifice of their own blood and treasure,” said John Eibner, CEO of Christians Solidarity International, a human rights organization.
Last year, locals in Nineveh formed a sovereign Christian militia dubbed the Nineveh Plain Protection Units (NPU). Unlike other groups such as the Nineveh Plains Force, which instead work with and receive weapons and training from the Peshmerga, the NPU depends on no outsiders.
It’s a lesson learned the hard way, according to Jeff Gardner, of Restore Nineveh Now – an organization which seeks to support the NPU and help families who have lost loved ones to ISIS. He claims that he and his team spoke to hundreds of Christians and Yezidis in Iraq and they all pretty much shared the same story: hours before ISIS attacked their villages, usually early in the morning, their Kurdish protectors pulled out and headed East.
The Kurds did leave, but it was not as simple as Gardner and others describe it, according to Yakhi Hamza, a prominent Kurdish community leader and director of 1st North American Expeditionary Force, a nonprofit which offers advisory training to forces and organizations in conflict zones. Hamza said that initially the Iraqi Army was positioned in the Nineveh region. It was those forces who pulled out without warning. When Peshmerga fighters moved in to fill the void, some of the Christians balked, calling it a “Kurdish occupation,” he said.
“The Assyrians were against any Kurdish attempt to protect them, even when the ISIS offensive first started,” he said. “ISIS enslaved many of them the next day.”
Whatever the case, the Christians and Yezidis are wise to fight for themselves, said Matthew VanDyke, a filmmaker and self-styled revolutionary who fought with Libyan rebels to overthrow dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 before founding the non-profit security contracting firm Sons of Liberty.
“The only strategy for Assyrian Christians to remain in the region is for them to maintain their own security forces, which they can rely on if attacked,” said VanDyke, whose firm trains Assyrian fighters. “Otherwise, their people will continue to flee the region believing that they will be attacked again in the future with nobody to protect them.”
VanDyke said the refugee crisis now gripping the West can only be solved by helping people defend and remain in their homes.
“We shouldn’t always be giving people a place to run to,” he said. “We should be giving them help to fight against those they run from.”
The Yezidis have similarly concluded they must fight for their own survival. Members of the ancient ethnoreligious group, many of whom lived on and around Mount Sinjar, said they also were abandoned and left helpless last summer when the ISIS fighters bombarded their villages. Many were beheaded, thousands of females were taken as sexual slaves and boys recruited as child soldiers. Thousands more starved to death as ISIS surrounded the base of the mountain.
Despite the recent liberation of Mount Sinjar by Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. air support, many fear returning “home.”
“We Yazidis need to have a security system so that we know this won’t happen again,” said Pari Ibrahim, founder of the Free Yezidi Foundation. “I hope all the forces can work together and don’t quarrel, but minorities need to feel that they have some power in defending their own homes and the minorities are fully part of the defense forces.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay