In Iraq, the emergence of the extremist group known as the Islamic State has not just damaged the lives and property of countless Iraqis, Kurds and others. It has also done irreparable damage to communities in Iraq that once lived side by side in relative harmony.
In Iraqi Kurdistan the Islamic State, or IS, group has caused local ethnic and religious minorities like the Yazidis and Kaka’i to lose confidence in their Kurdish neighbours. Some of these minorities participated in the Kurdish fight for independence as members of the Iraqi Kurdish military forces, known as the Peshmerga. But now they are calling for the formation of their own ethnic militias, so that they can protect themselves and their people, rather than relying on the Peshmerga.
After the IS group was able to take control of the mostly-Yazidi populated town of Sinjar, local Yazidi man, Qassim Shasho, announced that he was leaving the Iraqi Kurdish political party he had been a member of for years, the Kurdistan Democratic Party or KDP. Shasho was also well known as a former member of the Peshmerga. But now he is leading his own Yazidi force in order to defend Sinjar better than the Peshmerga did.
“The Peshmerga put very little effort into defending Sinjar. They were able to leave it to the IS fighters so easily – as if they were offering sheep to the hungry wolves,” Shasho says angrily. “That is why the Yazidi want to protect themselves and their honour with their own hands from now on.”
In a letter addressed to the Iraqi government and to international governments, the head of the Yazidis, Tahseen Saeed Bek, called on any authorities who could, to help the Yazidi people against the threat of the IS group.
Another ethno-religious group in the area, the Kaka’i, have also started to form their own militias in their own areas near Kirkuk, Khanaquin and Mosul. According to one source from within the group, more than 1,400 fighters have enlisted in the Kaka’i militias so far. The structure of the militia has not yet been formally agreed upon but many young Kaka’i have already volunteered.
“As part of their battle tactics, the Peshmerga withdrew from some villages south of Kirkuk, Bu Mohammed and Ali Sarra,” Rajab Kaka’i, one of the locals from around Kirkuk who runs the Yaristan Cultural and Social Centre for Kaka’i culture, told NIQASH. “The Kaka’is living in these areas suffered a lot as a result of those withdrawals and that’s why they no longer trust the Peshmerga. They were sacrificed as part of military strategy.”
“I don’t actually agree with ordinary people being armed,” Kaka’i argues. “But the reality on the ground means that we now have to carry arms. As religious minorities, we were shocked when the Peshmerga didn’t protect us against the IS group. Our people had expected to be protected. So in order not to succumb to extinction, we have decided to defend ourselves.”
The minorities’ moves to form their militias are not particularly welcome, according to one official inside the Peshmerga. “We are obliged to defend all the components of the population inside the Iraqi Kurdish region even if that means a loss to ourselves,” the official told NIQASH – he couldn’t give his name because he was not authorised to comment on the matter. “Dividing the armed forces along religious or ethnic lines is a dangerous step. It could mean division on other issues too.”
Some have said that the Peshmerga’s failure to defend the ethnic minorities in and around Iraqi Kurdistan was a strategic move – some reports suggest that the Peshmerga didn’t have the manpower or weapons to fight the IS in those areas, others say that their withdrawal was deliberate, meant to bring the IS closer and get the international support. In other words, the Peshmerga withdrawal from the ethnic minority-held areas was not done because the Peshmerga weren’t willing to defend the Yazidis or Kaka’is. Nonetheless it seems clear that somehow the Iraqi Kurdish military need to regain the confidence of these two groups.
“The best way to regain the confidence of the Yazidis and the Kaka’i would be to penalize the officials who left the battlefield and allowed the monsters from the IS group to enter,” the official noted. “They can’t be blamed for losing confidence in the Peshmerga but the fact that they’re forming their own militias is a negative thing.”
Other officials from within Iraqi Kurdish military say that they would be happy to support the formation of the new ethnicity-based militias and to provide them organisational support and other facilities. In September Shasho met with the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, and he says that Barzani expressed support for the Yazidi militia as long as it is under the umbrella of the Peshmerga leadership.
Still it seems unlikely that men like Shasho, who now heads a sizeable Yazidi fighting force of around 2,000 volunteers, will be appeased any time soon. “Our people were unexpectedly put in a very tough situation – we were facing genocide,” Shasho remarks. “It’s not easy to forget all that. Or to fix the damage that’s been done.”