How fighting in Sinjar is displacing Iraq's Yazidis

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12 May, 2022
In-depth: Renewed fighting in the Sinjar province of northern Iraq continues to compound the displacement faced by the Yazidi people, who are caught in the crossfire of regional conflicts.

Nearly ten thousand Yazidis from the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq have once again been displaced into the Kurdistan region following recent confrontations between the Iraqi army and local Yazidi forces. 

The people of Sinjar are now demanding the withdrawal of rival armed forces from their war-torn district in order to pave the way for the internally displaced people to return to their homes.

Sinjar, home to members of the Yazidi religious community, is located 120 km west of Mosul. Administratively, it is a district of the Nineveh province, but it is also part of the disputed territories between the Iraqi federal government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil.

The two governments, Yazidi forces, Iran, and Turkey have all been vying for control over the area.  

In the early hours of 2 May, the first day of Eid al-Fitr celebrating the end of the holy month of Ramadan, the Iraqi army launched an operation to force out the Sinjar Resistance Units (YBS) and the Ezdixan Security Forces from Sinjar. The two Yazidi forces are seen as allied with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

"Local officials say the violence has forced around 10,200 people to flee their homes"

Following two days of heavy clashes between the Iraqi army and Yazidi militants in the Sinune subdistrict of Sinjar, the situation has now stabilised as the two sides have reached a "fragile" ceasefire deal in Sinjar and its surrounding areas, Yazidi and Kurdish officials told The New Arab.

A Yazidi official said that the clashes took place in residential areas and that the Iraqi army used tanks and artillery. Consequently, an Iraqi soldier, as well as a YBS fighter, were killed, and several others were wounded from both sides.

Local officials say the violence has forced around 10,200 people to flee their homes.

“1,746 families from Sinjar were displaced to IDP camps in Duhok province as a result of the recent tensions,” Karwan Zaki, head of media at the KRG’s directorate of displacement in Duhok, told The New Arab in a phone call. “Until now, none of the families have wanted to return to their hometown.”

He said that since 2014, more than 65,000 families totalling over 330,000 people from Nineveh have been displaced into Duhok province. 

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Islamic State (IS) militants took over Sinjar in August 2014 after the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces retreated from the area, leaving Yazidis to experience a genocidal campaign of killings, rape, abductions, and enslavement by IS militants.

The armed YBS was established with the help of the PKK to defend their vulnerable community.

The Yazidis established a self-governing local administration in Sinjar, similar to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), also known as Rojava. The Ezdixan Security Forces are the YBS’s local security branch in Sinjar.

The YBS is officially part of Iraq's Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) which includes dozens of armed groups officially part of the Iraqi security forces, but they are notably different in their pro-Iran stance.

Khudeda Alias, Chairman of the Autonomous Administration Council in Sinune, confirmed to The New Arab earlier this month that the situation in Sinjar and the neighbouring districts is now stable after the Iraqi army and the PMF brokered a ceasefire deal.

But he noted that despite the deal, Yazidis are concerned by the potential for renewed violence between local factions and the Iraqi army due to political pressures from the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Turkey on the Iraqi federal government.

Mourners gathering around coffins wrapped with the Iraqi flag during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of the Islamic State (IS) group in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district, on February 6, 2021. [Getty]
Mourners gather around coffins wrapped with the Iraqi flag during a mass funeral for Yazidi victims of the Islamic State (IS) group in the northern Iraqi village of Kojo in Sinjar district, on 6 February 2021. [Getty]

In October 2020, the federal government of Iraq and the KRG signed a deal to normalise Sinjar and appoint a new administration for the town. According to the deal, all forces associated with the PKK should withdraw from the city, with local and federal police in charge of maintaining the region's stability with the help of Iraqi national security forces.

The agreement, however, has not been carried out. Yazidis have rejected the deal, saying that both governments in Baghdad and Erbil “do not respect the will of the people" in the area.

Last week, the people of Sinjar and its districts took to the streets calling for the withdrawal of all different military forces from the area.

The protests triggered a meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and a delegation of residents of Sinjar on 9 May, where the PM reportedly vowed to “peacefully” expel all armed groups that are not obeying the Iraqi government in Sinjar. He said he would appoint an “independent” figure as Sinjar’s mayor shortly.

"Islamic State militants took over Sinjar in August 2014 after the Iraqi army and Kurdish peshmerga forces retreated from the area, leaving Yazidis to experience a genocidal campaign of killings, rape, and abductions"

Qasm Shasho, a Sinjar commander in the KRG Peshmerga forces, told The New Arab earlier this month that “the PMF will not let the Iraqi army dismiss YBS forces from Sinjar”. 

Turkey and the KDP are partners in fighting the PKK militants that are positioned in the mountainous areas in northern Iraq along the borders with Turkey and Iran. Sinjar is the joining position for the Kurds in Rojava with the PKK in the Qandil Mountains.

Iran, meanwhile, sees Sinjar as a battleground in the Turkish-Iranian rivalry for influence in oil-rich Mosul and Kirkuk. Iran is concerned that Turkey is stepping up its strategy to regain its historic ambitions in the Mosul Vilayet, which was part of the Ottoman Empire before its collapse in 1920.

“Due to the conflicts between the Iraqi army and PKK affiliated forces in Sinjar, Sinjar citizens were displaced for a second time. According to formal data, nearly ten thousand local citizens were displaced,” Mahma Khalil, an Iraqi lawmaker from the KDP and former Mayor of Sinjar told The New Arab.

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“Stances by the Iraqi government, the KRG, and the Iraqi parliament do not reflect the gravity of the events. The KRG has gratefully opened the door to embrace those displaced from Sinjar. But the Iraqi government has a shameful stance. We will present a request for an urgent session by the Iraqi Parliament to discuss the Sinjar issue.”

He stressed that there are no alternatives to the deal signed between the Iraqi government and the KRG, saying it is a legal and constitutional treaty that has been supported by the United Nations mission in Iraq.

“The PKK and their allies in the PMF did not want to carry out the deal. Had this agreement been implemented, then conditions of security and public services in Sinjar would have been normalised."

Dana Taib Menmy is an investigative freelance journalist from the Iraqi Kurdistan region writing on issues of politics, society, human rights, security, and minorities. His work has appeared in Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English, Middle East Eye, The National, among many other outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @danataibmenmy