POLITICS NOVEMBER 5, 2006
The surest way to map Iraq's ethnic and sectarian fault lines is by how quickly a U.S. helicopter flies over them. Choppers race over Sunni areas, nearly sideways to the ground in some places. But, a few miles outside of the town of Sinjar by the Syrian border, the Blackhawks slow to a leisurely speed: Yezidi live below. These ancient people, who number in the thousands and consider themselves neither Christian nor Muslim, cherish their occupiers. Yezidi party leader Waad Hamed Modo greets me in a Sinjar courtyard with his own testimonial. "I met recently with Sunnis in Baghdad," he says. "They told me, 'You Yezidi are collaborators.' I said to them, 'That's right--we are collaborators.'" Colonel Sean MacFarland, commander of the First Armored Division's First Brigade Combat Team (1-1AD) says that Sinjar "feels like Paris in 1944." Parents and children line the streets when U.S. patrols pass by, while Yezidi clerics pray for the welfare of U.S. forces. More even than Paris, in fact, Sinjar feels like Iraq as Dick Cheney predicted it would be.
A small U.S. outpost—which, the Yezidi say, shines like a beacon to them at night—marks the summit of Sinjar Mountain, the landscape's signature feature. As we snake our way up a sharply winding road to the peak, a young Yezidi named Saydow Nasser explains some of the more exotic Yezidi folkways. "A Muslim army dressed in blue came to kill us," he says, "so naturally we don't wear blue." (Yezidi don't eat lettuce, either, and also boast a long tradition of kidnapping their wives.) Sinjar lies at the crossing of several ethnic and sectarian borders in Western Iraq, and the Yezidi's unorthodox customs have made them a perennial target of Sunni, Shia, and Kurd alike. With no militia to guard against pogroms, the Yezidi used to hide out from their persecutors among the Roman ruins that dot the plain below (the Roman Empire's eastern boundary runs through the center of town).
First the British and then the Soviets launched a few archaeological expeditions around Sinjar, but mostly the town has been frozen in amber. Elsewhere in Iraq, kids throw rocks at the Americans. Here, says 1-1 AD's Captain Aaron Dixon, they toss Roman coins. Another soldier claims that this sense of timelessness spooks him a bit. In 2003, an officer with the 101st Airborne Division realized, while watching a DVD copy of The Exorcist, that the eerie opening sequence of the 1973 film was shot among the Yezidi temples just outside his door.
Which stands to reason: what truly sets the Yezidi apart from their neighbors is that they worship, well, Satan. Or, more exactly, Malak Taus (the Peacock Angel), whom God sent down to earth to create mankind. "When Satan came to earth, it was his reward," Nasser explains. "That day was beautiful—all the flowers turned red." The Yezidi remain sensitive about this belief. Last year, for example, Yezidi parliamentarian Kameran Khairi Said interrupted a speech by then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari, because, he explained, "we feel insulted when you repeatedly use the expression in your speeches and statements, 'God protects us from the Devil.'"
Over tea and cigarettes, Sinjar's elders gather in a dilapidated building, where they confide that Yezidi liturgy contains a prophecy of special relevance to the Americans. In the Yezidi version of the Second Coming, the Rapture is said to arrive in the form of blue-eyed fighters from a distant shore. "A long time ago, we said holy people with red faces and blue eyes will free us," explains Saydow Morad, a municipal leader with robes and a long beard. Gesturing to Dixon, he says, "We are not disappointed." When the discussion turns to his views of the Americans, even Modo--a quick-talking operator who, unlike his robed colleagues, favors Western attire—reverts to the mystical. He explains the Yezidi's attachment to the U.S. occupation this way: "When President Bush said this is a holy fight, we know he is correct. God wanted this to happen." This, he adds in a curious aside, is "why President Bush tells us to fast." Which, apparently, the Yezidi do several days per year.
For all of its divine origins, when it comes to the Yezidi's affection for the Americans, it's hard to know where theological enthusiasms end and temporal ones begin. The Americans have poured funds into Sinjar and rebuilt much of the town. "If the Americans leave," Modo says, "the Yezidi will suffer terrible things." That's because everyone in Iraq—Kurds to the North, Arabs to the South, Turkmen to the East--seems to have designs on Sinjar. In the name of "Arabizing" their lands, Saddam Hussein slaughtered thousands of Yezidi around Sinjar, and Yezidi complain that, even now, the Baghdad government seeks to claim them as Arabs. Meanwhile, Sunni leaders accuse the Yezidi of being U.S. puppets, and the charge of collaboration has come to haunt Sinjar. More than anyone else, the Yezidi fear the Kurds. Having been Arabized under Saddam, Sinjar now finds itself under pressure from the Kurdish militia to declare itself Kurdish. At the mere mention of their neighbors to the north, a Yezidi council meeting descends into a Babelesque roar.
As we say our goodbyes, Yezidi representative Ali Rasho pulls me aside and thrusts a stack of papers into my hands. It consists of letters addressed to various U.N. commissions and Western human rights organizations, pleading for attention to be paid to the Yezidi. The odds that anyone will read them seem slight. Washington, too, will surely forget about the Yezidi when the Americans depart Iraq, just as it discarded Vietnam's Montagnards--another mountain people who suffered terribly for the sin of aiding the United States.
Aside from 1-1 AD, in fact, Kurdish militiamen and Al Qaeda seem to be the only ones who evince any interest in Sinjar's residents: A few weeks after my visit, bombings engulfed the once-peaceful town. And, a few weeks after that, the soldiers of 1-1 AD received orders to depart Sinjar for Anbar province. From Ramadi, their death notices now appear nearly every day in those tidy boxes inside U.S. newspapers. But the Yezidi still pray for them. As we should pray for the Yezidi.
Lawrence F. Kaplan is editor of Entanglements. Previously, he was editor of World Affairs, executive editor of The National Interest, and senior editor at The New Republic, for which he reported from Iraq during 2005-2007. Kaplan is also a Distinguished Visiting Professor at the U.S. Army War College. He is a graduate of Columbia University, Oxford, and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.