Two weeks ago during celebrations of the Yazidi New Year, Iraqi Kurdish forces prevented one MP from coming home for the holidays. Amin Farhan Jijo, an MP representing the Yazidi ethnic group in Baghdad, was prevented from entering his hometown of Sinjar, a town in north western Iraq in the province of Ninawa, near the Syrian border. Local policemen and religious men calmed the situation. But had they not, one local man says, “it could have turned into a really red Wednesday,” – he was referring to the traditional name of the holiday, Red Wednesday.
Iraqi Kurdish forces are all over Sinjar – but this stand-off was representative of how the government of Iraqi Kurdistan – and its two major parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) - were intensifying their activities in the area, pre-elections. While Ninawa’s provincial council elections were postponed by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki last month due to alleged security concerns, they have now been rescheduled for July 4, 2013.
Why was Jijo harassed in this way by the Iraqi Kurdish forces, more commonly known in the area as the peshmerga? It is assumed that this happened because Jijo is head of the Yazidi Reform and Progress Movement, and along with Waad Hamad Matto, who heads the Yazidi Progress Party, he is one of the very few Yazidi politicians who do not support the Iraqi Kurdish in Ninawa. And they won’t be supporting them in the upcoming provincial elections in the state either.
Both Matto and Jijo see Yazidi identity as separate from Kurdish identity and they often criticize the Iraqi Kurdish for trying to dominate the Yazidis. Jijo has publicly spoken out against what he describes as the “Kurdish occupation” of Ninawa, claiming the Yazidis suffer because of it. Matto has made similar comments. And Jijo has also called upon the federal Iraqi government to protect the Yazidis from the Iraqi Kurdish.
This is a highly unusual and controversial narrative for Sinjar, and indeed for any Yazidi-dominated area. Sinjar is located about sixty kilometres west of Mosul and is part of Iraq’s disputed territories – that is, areas that the Iraqis say belong to them but that the Iraqi Kurdish insist should be part of their semi-autonomous state. Nonetheless the Iraqi Kurdish control almost every inch of it. Its population is almost all Yazidi and most of this ethnic group identify, culturally and historically, as Iraqi Kurdish. Politically they mostly support the Iraqi Kurdish too.
But the support of most Yazidis for Iraqi Kurdistan in the disputed territories is not necessarily always enthusiastic or unconditional. Attitudes of much of the Yazidi population range from despondent to indifferent when it comes to Iraqi Kurdistan and the KDP’s overbearing pre-election tactics.
According to locals, these range from trying to drive a wedge between Yazidis here and their Arab neighbours to establishing “fake” Yazidi parties to split the vote to the usual Iraqi electoral tactic: the distribution of money, jobs and influence.
As one local man points out: “Almost all employees, workers, officials and even the mayor of the town are paid by the KDP. They have to celebrate [the Kurdish New Year] Nowruz and hang one of [KDP leader Massoud] Barzani’s pictures in their homes and listen to Kurdish news.”
Others are given money to open “party branches” – that is, basically turn their homes into informal political party support centres by erecting a flag. Hundreds of these have opened in Sinjar, locals say, joking that there are now more party centres in Sinjar than the KDP has in Erbil.
Baghdad’s decision to postpone provincial elections in Ninawa interrupted this patronage system. It’s known that the KDP often withholds social welfare money until just a week before elections at which stage they then distribute a larger sum of money. They might also withhold compensation payments due to families affected by policies under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who tried to make the whole area more Arab. The wheels had already started turning on this process and some of this money had been doled out. When the postponement came, local KDP party officials were apparently worried about how they would continue to campaign all the way until July.
Another suspected tactic is the creation of “fake” Yazidi parties. These may have Yazidi in the name, but are not actually Yazidi in orientation. The Yazidi Free Formation Party and the Yazidi Future Road Party are allegedly two such examples. Locals say you can tell they’re fake because basically nobody has ever heard of these parties until very shortly before elections. The “fake” Yazidi parties decrease the influence of the real Yazidi parties by splitting votes and loyalties, a spokesperson for the Yazidi Progress Party has suggested.
More practical preparations for the upcoming July elections have also begun. Last month, KDP branch offices had to provide around 200 names of citizen-supporters as well as their identification cards and ration cards. One man said that this was because, when many indifferent locals didn’t bother to vote, the KDP election workers could vote on their behalf. Of course, this is actually election fraud – but in Sinjar almost all of the officers from Iraq’s Independent High Electoral Commission, who are supposed to oversee the elections and catch election violations, are otherwise employed, in one capacity of another, by political parties from Iraqi Kurdistan.
Another pre-election move involves alleged attempts to drive a wedge between the Yazidis and Arabs who have lived side by side in the district for centuries; these are often members of the Shammar and Jehesh tribes. Many Yazidis call these Arabs kreef or “blood-brother” to signify their strong bonds.
Recently the Iraqi Kurdish political parties seem to have been trying to make this relationship less convivial. While unable to be completely verified, stories about this abound. One Yazidi family tells how they had to convince Iraqi Kurdish military to let an Arab friend into the area for a family wedding. A woman married to a pro-Baghdad Yazidi was fired from her job at the local office of the KDP. Business owners who are not members of the KDP find it very difficult to travel to Dohuk to get supplies. After a leading Yazidi from Sinjar – the equivalent of a mayor – went to visit the Arab Shammar tribe, he was arrested by Iraqi Kurdish forces and spent five days in jail.
All of these kinds of aggressive tactics have turned many Yazidis in Sinjar off. One local man said he suspected that a large part of the local population – maybe as much as half – either disliked or was apathetic about the KDP. Another local said that he thought the KDP must fail sooner or later in Sinjar because they are “using the same strategy as people have used before”. This was in reference to heavy pressure that Saddam Hussein’s now-outlawed Baath party used to put on locals to vote for it.
And a further man wondered if locals would even care if the Islamic State of Iraq – an umbrella organization for the likes of al Qaeda and others - took over the place. Though they are all different parties, he said, they use the same, strong arm tactics and have little commitment to serious, legitimate, policy-based political or economic platforms.
As a result, some locals have started to side with political leaders like Jijo and Matto, and they have taken a stand against this aggressive partisanship. For example, a group of young writers publishes articles and posts on Facebook, criticizing KDP’s activities. At a weekly poetry night held in Sinjar, one man expressed his cynicism and dissatisfaction with the aggressive patronage: “I don’t want to say what is going on behind the scenes, but a guy will sell his land for pay. A man with a moustache [referring to the mukhtar or mayor] will sell himself - and us with him”.
Then again, talk to other locals and it is also clear that the Iraqi Kurdish have done a lot of positive things for Yazidis, and for Sinjar. That list of good deeds would include paving roads to local Yazidi shrines that could only be used by donkeys before, opening their own universities to Yazidi students when educational institutions in the rest of the country became too dangerous to attend and
giving local women better opportunities to work and to enter politics – a lot of the KDP offices have a significant female staff. The Iraqi Kurdish have also been behind the building of the Lalish cultural centres for the Yazidi. All of these things cannot be ignored and most likely account for a lot of the Yazidi’s loyalty.
And as one head of a KDP sub branch in Sinjar insisted to NIQASH: “We do not put unfair pressure - or any kind of pressure - on anyone to vote for us. Instead, we bring our peshmerga here to ensure that people feel safe to go and vote. Even though we want to win like everybody else,” he added, “unfair pressure is not acceptable. Our reputation for giving people the freedom to choose is the most important thing and comes before our own interests.”
There is however one thing that is beyond the control of both the Iraqi Kurdish politicians and their critics, when it comes to who Yazidis in Sinjar will want to vote for, come July. Recent violence in Mosul, part of the chain of violent incidents sparked by the Iraqi army’s storming of a Sunni protest camp in the town of Hawija near Kirkuk in April, might help the KDP’s cause. As Mosul - along with other parts of Iraq - starts looking even more dangerous and unstable, the semi-autonomous realm of Iraqi Kurdistan tends to look safer, and better, than ever.