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Militant Slaughter Sparks Mass Exodus in Northern Iraq Mountains

By Glen Carey and Ladane Nasseri
August 07, 2014 5:01 AM EDT 126 Comments
Iraqi Yazidis flee from Sinjar. The militant advance on Sinjar and other towns in the area displaced as many as 200,000 people, according to the United Nations Mission in Iraq.
Photographer: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Iraqi Yazidis flee from Sinjar. The militant advance on Sinjar and other towns in the area displaced as many as 200,000 people, according to the United Nations Mission in Iraq.

Thousands of people from Iraq’s Yezidi religious group are stranded in northern mountains, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, as they sought to escape execution and rape by Islamist militants.

About 140,000 people fled from regions in the north this week, including the town of Sinjar, where most of the population is Yezidi, according to UNICEF. While most escaped to Kurdish-controlled areas, about 50,000 people, half of them children, are stuck in the mountains, UNICEF spokeswoman Juliette Touma said by phone from Iraq.

“Their situation is the direst because we cannot provide assistance or provide essential supplies like water,” she said.

The attacks on the minority Yezidi group are the latest evidence of the trauma that has gripped Iraq as militants calling themselves the Islamic State rampage through the country. The jihadist group’s army is also targeting dams whose destruction could flood areas near Baghdad and Mosul.

“I received a text message from one of my relatives there before his phone’s battery died, saying there is a mass grave for the children,” Housam Salim, the head of the Solidarity and Brotherhood Yezidi Organization, said in a phone interview today from an area of Mosul controlled by Kurdish forces.

Women ‘Sold’

The group, which has used beheadings to intimidate people in its advance across Iraq and Syria, consider Yezidis, a community whose faith includes features of the ancient Persian religion of Zoroastrianism, as apostates under its fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

“As we speak, there is genocide taking place against the Yezidis,” Vian Dakheel, a Yezidi member of Iraq’s parliament, said in an impassioned speech on Aug. 5. “Our women are being used as concubines and sold in the markets.”

The militant policy of “‘either convert or be killed’ is a very powerful message,” Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai, said in a phone interview. “This group is going to be creating more refugee flows as it moves in different directions within the multi-ethnic structure of Iraq.”

Iraq’s population is one of the most religiously and ethnically diverse in the Middle-East. As well as the majority Arabs and Kurds, minority ethnic groups include Assyrians, Armenians and Turkmens. Religiously, a majority are Shiite Muslims and about a third Sunnis, while Christians make up about 4 percent of Iraqis, and Yezidis are among the remaining 2 percent, according to Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

‘Get Them Out’

UNICEF’s Touma says the group estimates that at least 40 children died during the flight from Sinjar. She said she spoke to a man among those stranded who said he was only 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the area controlled by the Islamists.

“It’s not just reaching them with supplies, it’s also how do we get them out of that area into safety,” Touma said.

Strengthened with weapons seized from the Iraqi army, the Islamic State, which was previously known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, has seized oil fields in Iraq and is threatening the two key dams at Mosul and Haditha. Kurdish forces are battling to retake Sinjar from the militants.

The Iraqi government has deployed its air force to support Kurdish forces in the Mosul and Sinjar areas, General Hamed al-Maliki, an air force commander, told Al-Sumaria TV yesterday.

Iraqi financial markets declined amid the latest clashes. The ISX General Index of shares dropped 1.5 percent yesterday to the lowest level since 2010. The benchmark government bond due January 2028 fell to the lowest since March, with the yield rising 9 basis points to 7.41 percent.

To contact the reporters on this story: Glen Carey in Riyadh at gcarey8@bloomberg.net; Ladane Nasseri in Dubai at lnasseri@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at barden@bloomberg.net Michael Winfrey

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