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attacks on harvest workers in northern iraq signal new security crisis

Christine van den Toorn and Nawaf Ashur
Every year thousands of the ethno-religious Yazidi group take part in the harvest on nearby Arab-owned farms. However this year deadly attacks on Yazidi labourers have sent most of them back home early. There are…
29.05.2014  |  Sulaymaniyah
Violence has forced Yazidi labourers to return home to Sinjar. Pic: Ahmed Shingaly
Violence has forced Yazidi labourers to return home to Sinjar. Pic: Ahmed Shingaly

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In early May, four Yazidi men from Sinjar district were killed in northern Iraq as they made their way to plant the annual tomato crop.

The week before, there had been a similar incident when two other Yazidi men were killed in the same area, in the sub-district of Rabia - reportedly this was because they would not pay an extortion fee to men suspected to be members of an extremist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The group is also known as Daash by locals.

The extremist group is well known for extorting “protection money” from locals and they legitimize their methods by citing an historical tax levied on minorities living under Islamic governments.

Last month, in two other separate incidents a Yazidi family and a Yazidi man were killed in an area where locals picnic.

And these are just a few of the recent incidents. Over the past year, there has been a revival of threats targeting Yazidis and other minority groups in and around the northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Mosul remains one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq for outsiders, as it is considered a base for ISIS.

Yazidis – who make up a small but significant ethno-religious minority in Iraq and who have strong links to Iraq’s Kurdish ethnicity - cannot help but fear the return of the “bad years”. Between 2005 and 2008, hundreds of Yazidis were killed in and around Mosul; the Sinjar district, west of Mosul and close to the Syrian border is home to a large number of Yazidis and in 2007, it experienced one of the worst attacks in recent history when huge truck bombs killed over 500 people and injured thousands more.

After an eight-year hiatus due to security concerns, Sinjar’s Yazidis finally resumed their work in Rabia – an agricultural area forty-five minutes northwest of their own district – in 2012. Before 2003, tens of thousands of Yazidis use to make the annual migration to work in the fields. As one local remarked, the agricultural migration meant that, “if you go into villages in Sinjar right now they will be totally empty”.

But that was before this series of attacks. Now local Yazidis fear that as the Iraqi Army tries to eradicate ISIS from Anbar, that they will move further north into Sinjar. The district is already surrounded by threats: To the east lies Mosul, ISIS’ safe haven, and to the west is the border with Syria, over which extremist fighters cross into Iraq.

A colonel in the Iraqi border police in Rabia described the perpetrators of the attacks on Yazidis as “terrorist groups” and, he said, “if this continues it will have a bad effect”.

“Every single Yazidi is in danger from now on,” Sayeed Thiban, a relative of those killed, said.

Even the Sunni Arab population of Rabia is nervous: “We ourselves are in a big danger if this area becomes like Anbar. We all are targeted,” says one local.

The Shammar tribe – who are Sunni Muslim Arabs – has been in Rabia for centuries. And despite their different religions and ethnicity, their close friendships with the Yazidis of Sinjar have survived Iraq’s worst years. Almost every Arab in Rabia is kreef, or “blood brother”, to a Yazidi from Sinjar and they attend each other’s weddings and funerals. In fact, since Ottoman times a Yazidi tribe, called Smoqa, and the Shammar tribe have had a particularly strong relationship – historically they even fought together against tribes of their own religion or ethnicity.

Their relationship is also economic: Most Yazidis have contracts to work on Shammar land.

But in the days after the attack, one of the leaders of the Arab Shammar tribe, Muhsin Sfouk, was forced to tell the head of the Yazidi Smoqa tribe, Ahmad Smail, that he could not guarantee the safety of the Yazidi farmers. Shammar tribe members did however provide Yazidis weapons and chauffeur them home after the attacks.

Sinjar’s Yazidis are in an economic bind. During the eight-year hiatus, when they were not able to work as agricultural labourers, many took jobs in the service industry in relatively stable and secure Iraqi Kurdistan – the semi-autonomous region borders their own area. However over the past few years there’s been an influx of Syrians – and particularly Syrian Kurds – into Iraqi Kurdistan so there is tougher competition for those kinds of jobs now.

Last year Yazidis from Sinjar were able to return from the harvest in Rabia with pockets full of cash. “My sister’s salon was always busy,” one man remarks – this is the sign of good economic times because it means there are plenty of brides and bridal parties preparing for weddings, which means locals have enough money to marry. “But maybe this year no one will get married,” the salon owner’s brother remarked.

Since the recent attacks, almost all Yazidis have returned from Rabia to Sinjar without the pay they expected and it seems that the traditional tomato harvest between the two communities will not be revived anytime soon.

The tomato harvest will also be a victim of these problems. In the past when Rabia had a bad tomato harvest, locals would buy the vegetable in Syria. But this is no longer an option, which means that tomato prices will go up this year. Violence often affects the prices of agricultural goods in Iraq. For example, last year a tomato buyer from Basra was killed on the road to Sinjar, which saw fewer buyers from southern Iraq venture up north to buy tomatoes. The surplus saw prices go down.

The Yazidis’ problem is also political. Up until now, part of the reason the Yazidis have been safe in Sinjar has had to do with the neighbouring, semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Iraqi Kurdish government is fighting with the federal government of Iraq over Sinjar – it is one of the country’s disputed territories, which means that the Iraqi Kurdish government claims that it is actually part of Iraqi Kurdistan while the government in Baghdad says it belongs to Iraq proper. The Iraqi Kurdish have military deployed in Sinjar as do the Iraqi army – however the Iraqi Kurdish military is not in Rabia because the Arab tribes there would not allow it.

Some in the area have speculated that, in fact, it is the Iraqi Kurdish who are behind the attacks on the Yazidis. The conspiracy theory doing the rounds goes something like this: the Iraqi Kurdish want to separate the Yazidis – who generally have more of an ethnic affinity to the Kurds than to the Arabs – from their Arab friends and employers. This is so they will turn more to the Iraqi Kurdish government for protection and patronage more than ever - and when the time comes to choose sides in the disputed territories issue, they will choose Iraqi Kurdistan. However this conspiracy theory is nothing more than that: a theory, albeit an oft repeated one.

Certainly threats to the road into Rabia will concern the Iraqi Kurdish authorities because this is the safest route from Sinjar to Dohuk and it has become the district’s socio-economic lifeline after Mosul became unsafe in 2005. This could push the Iraqi Kurdish to do more to protect the Yazidis of Sinjar, by perhaps sending more of their military to protect the road, as they did last week for Yazidis returning to Sinjar. Such moves were controversial in the past: a confrontation arose last year when Iraqi Kurdish forces would not allow the Iraqi army to protect the Rabia border crossing with Syria.

The attacks on Yazidis also signal yet another hurdle for the Iraqi Kurdish authorities around this particular disputed territory; there are clearly many dangers accompanying their desire to take over more terrain in the Iraqi province of Ninawa, which is home to many extremist groups.

The attacks also reflect the ongoing rise of extremists control over Ninawa. And both Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurdish government in Erbil will be concerned if ISIS is moving into new territories in the north - the extremist group sees this part of Iraq as part of its future Islamic state and, as one Sinjar local, who used to go to the harvest, says, Rabia is “impossible to secure”.

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