Iraqi Yazidis and Chris­tians live in a tug-of-war zone

Bashiqa is one of a hand­ful of towns and cities that could test the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment’s fit­ness for self-rule and the Bagh­dad gov­ern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to stop the breakup of the coun­try

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY TAMER EL-GHOBASHY tamer.el­ghobashy@wash­post.com Mustafa Salim con­trib­uted to this re­port.

bashiqa, iraq — Shortly af­ter the Is­lamic State was pushed out of his home town last year, Ivan Ab­dulla bought a new house in the tra­di­tion­ally Yazidi en­clave. It was an in­vest­ment in the place where gen­er­a­tions of his family were raised, he said.

But the fa­ther of three al­ready re­grets his de­ci­sion.

The hill­top town of mostly Yazidis and Chris­tians — two of Iraq’s most vul­ner­a­ble mi­nori­ties — has be­come the fo­cus of a tug of war be­tween the Iraqi gov­ern­ment and the Kur­dish re­gion since a Kur­dish vote for in­de­pen­dence last week.

Bashiqa is legally part of Iraq but con­trolled by Kur­dish se­cu­rity forces. Kur­dish of­fi­cials see it as part of a fu­ture state. Once again, the town’s fu­ture has sud­denly been thrown into doubt.

“You can’t think long-term in this coun­try,” Ab­dulla said. “What­ever plans you set, some­thing hap­pens. Things get ru­ined.”

Bashiqa is one of a hand­ful of towns and cities that could test the Kur­dis­tan Re­gional Gov­ern­ment’s fit­ness for self-rule and the Iraqi gov­ern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to stop the breakup of the coun­try.

How that con­flict plays out will deeply af­fect the fate of Iraq’s eth­nic and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties, who have been scat­tered, mas­sa­cred and be­sieged by decades of war — and, more re­cently, a pol­icy of ex­ter­mi­na­tion by the Is­lamic State. Most of Iraq’s mi­nori­ties live in the swath of north­ern Iraq that is part of a pro­posed au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish state.

Chris­tians and Yazidis have left the coun­try in droves in re­cent years, es­pe­cially since the Is­lamic State swept through parts of Iraq in 2014. Yazidis, in par­tic­u­lar, say they were aban­doned by Kur­dish forces to be mas­sa­cred and sex­u­ally en­slaved by the mil­i­tants.

Both groups be­lieve they would be the big­gest losers in a con­flict be­tween Bagh­dad and the Kur­dish re­gion.

“Our fu­ture is a mys­tery,” said Akram Man­sour, 67, a se­cu­rity guard at the his­toric Mar Korkeis church in Bashiqa. “We’re be­tween the ham­mer of the Kur­dish gov­ern­ment and the ham­mer of the fed­eral gov­ern­ment.”

Lo­cated about a dozen miles north­east of Mo­sul, Bashiqa was once a quiet place where Yazidis, Chris­tians and a smaller pop­u­la­tion of Sunni Mus­lims lived pros­per­ously. Churches and mosques were of­ten built across the street from one an­other.

The town, which had a pop­u­la­tion of about 50,000 be­fore the Is­lamic State stormed in, pro­vided an out­size con­tri­bu­tion to Iraq’s econ­omy and cul­ture.

The farms nearby pro­duced olives cov­eted through­out the coun­try, as well as soap and sesame oil. It was also known af­fec­tion­ately as Iraq’s Liquor Store be­cause of the fac­to­ries there that made arak, an anise-fla­vored liquor.

Af­ter the U.S. in­va­sion, Kur­dish pesh­merga forces se­cured the town — giv­ing Kur­dish po­lit­i­cal par­ties their first foothold in the Nin­eveh plains, a re­gion of towns and vil­lages with a dis­pro­por­tion­ately high num­ber of mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing Chris­tians and Yazidis.

Bashiqa was one of the few places in Iraq where Yazidis didn’t live in clois­tered com­mu­ni­ties. Their iso­la­tion in other ar­eas left them par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble to the Is­lamic State, and their plight drew the U.S. mil­i­tary back into Iraq.

The pesh­merga with­drew from the town of Sin­jar one night in sum­mer 2014, lead­ing to a mas­sacre of Yazidis and the en­slave­ment of thou­sands of women by the Is­lamic State. Days later, the pesh­merga left Bashiqa, and Yazidi and Christian fam­i­lies were forced to flee on their own.

Pesh­merga forces backed by U.S. airstrikes de­feated the Is­lamic State in Bashiqa last Novem­ber.

To­day, the Iraqi gov­ern­ment is re­spon­si­ble for pub­lic ser­vices in Bashiqa. Elec­tric­ity is un­re­li­able, and tap wa­ter flows in­ter­mit­tently. There is one garbage truck, and trash piles up. A sin­gle crew of three men with a wheel­bar­row and shov­els fills roads cratered by airstrikes dur­ing the fight against the Is­lamic State.

Older re­tirees re­ceive their pen­sion from the Iraqi gov­ern­ment. Many of their adult chil­dren are em­ployed by the Kur­dish gov­ern­ment, these days mostly in the po­lice forces and mil­i­tary that pa­trol the streets. Dis­trust of both sides is high.

But the town’s aban­don­ment by the pesh­merga has left the deep­est wound.

“It was such a mis­er­able mo­ment,” Ab­dulla said. “We left loved ones not know­ing if we’ll ever see them again.”

As part of their cam­paign for in­de­pen­dence, Kur­dish of­fi­cials have said their record of pro­tect­ing Iraqi mi­nori­ties is far su­pe­rior to Iraqi gov­ern­ment ef­forts. But in re­cent months, Yazidis and Kur­dish forces have clashed, and few ba­sic ser­vices have been re­stored in dis­puted towns con­trolled by the Kurds.

Bashiqa bears the scars of the war against the Is­lamic State. Many houses re­main caved in by ex­plo­sions, and some build­ings are still marked with graf­fiti ex­alt­ing the ex­trem­ist group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagh­dadi. The town is still half-empty, its res­i­dents scat­tered as refugees in Europe or liv­ing in camps through­out Iraq.

But some have re­turned, pre­fer­ring a nearly va­cant town still creak­ing back to life to liv­ing else­where among strangers.

“This is my home,” said Bassam Mah­moud, a 50-year-old Yazidi shop­keeper. “This is the home of my grand­fa­thers and their grand­fa­thers. We are Iraqis, but we be­long only here.”

That sense of be­long­ing has been chal­lenged by a surge in at­ten­tion from Kur­dish of­fi­cials, who, res­i­dents said, did more talk­ing than lis­ten­ing when they came to town.

Ahead of the Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum, the top spir­i­tual leader of the Yazidis, Baba Sheikh Khurto Ha­jji Is­mail, said he main­tained “a pol­icy of neu­tral­ity,” adding that the is­sue is “for Kurds only to de­cide.”

Weeks be­fore the Sept. 25 ref­er­en­dum, Kur­dish author­i­ties dec­o­rated the streets with Kur­dish flags. Mas­sive posters bear­ing the face of the Kur­dish re­gional pres­i­dent, Ma­soud Barzani, were draped over build­ings.

Res­i­dents said the mes­sage was clear: Only a “yes” vote for Kur­dish in­de­pen­dence was ex­pected.

“It doesn’t mat­ter whether you vote yes or no. No one knows where these bal­lot boxes are go­ing,” Mah­moud said. He voted “yes” any­way, he said.

“Don’t for­get, there are peo­ple watch­ing,” he said. “All the peo­ple here are pesh­merga.”

Zuhair, a 33-year-old Yazidi pesh­merga fighter, said he and other pesh­merga sol­diers were bused to a polling sta­tion out­side Bashiqa, where they voted un­der the watch­ful eye of se­nior com­man­ders.

“It hurt,” said Zuhair, who de­clined to give his full name out of fear of ret­ri­bu­tion. “I am a mem­ber of the pesh­merga, who left my peo­ple with­out even weapons to de­fend them­selves in Sin­jar. But how can I leave them? How would I live? I need the salary.”

Kur­dish elec­tion author­i­ties did not re­lease ref­er­en­dum re­sults show­ing how peo­ple in dis­puted ar­eas voted.

Bashiqa’s res­i­dents say they are brac­ing for a fresh round of armed con­flict. The town not only would sit on the bor­der be­tween two hos­tile neigh­bors but also is a site of oil ex­plo­ration.

Even if the Kur­dish bid for in­de­pen­dence ul­ti­mately suc­ceeds through ne­go­ti­a­tions, the res­i­dents of Bashiqa say they have lit­tle faith that they would be fully em­braced by a Kur­dish state.

“In ev­ery sce­nario, we are the ones who will be suf­fer­ing. Peo­ple built en­tire lives here over gen­er­a­tions and overnight lost ev­ery­thing,” Mah­moud said. “It’s back to zero, and we ex­pect this will hap­pen again.”

Ab­dulla, the new home­owner, said, “There’s an in­ner peace miss­ing.

“The most I can hope for now is that no one knocks on my door telling us we must leave,” he said. “That’s it.”

PHO­TOS BY TAMER EL-GHOBASHY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: A Yazidi statue was de­stroyed by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, pushed from Bashiqa by Kur­dish forces aided by U.S. airstrikes. BE­LOW: Yazidi shop­keeper Bassam Mah­moud has re­turned to Bashiqa, “the home of my grand­fa­thers and their grand­fa­thers.”

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T i g r i s R . 50 MILES

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