Tens of thousands of members of one of Iraq’s oldest minorities have been stranded on a mountain in the country’s north-west, facing slaughter at the hands of jihadists surrounding them below if they flee, or death by dehydration if they stay.
UN groups say at least 40,000 members of the Yazidi sect, many of them women and children, have taken refuge in nine locations on Mount Sinjar, a craggy, mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark.
At least 130,000 more people, many from the Yazidi stronghold of Sinjar, have fled to Dohuk, in the Kurdish north, or to Irbil, where regional authorities have been struggling since June to deal with one of the biggest and most rapid refugee movements in decades.
Sinjar itself has been all but emptied of its 300,000 residents since jihadists stormed the city late on Saturday, but an estimated 25,000 people remain. “We are being told to convert or to lose our heads,” said Khuldoon Atyas, who has stayed behind to guard his family’s crops. “There is no one coming to help.”
Another man, who is hiding in the mountains and identified himself as Nafi’ee, said: “Food is low, ammunition is low, and so is water. We have one piece of bread to share between 10 people. We have to walk 2km to get water. There were some air strikes yesterday [against the jihadists], but they have made no difference.”
Iraq isis WEB
At least 500 Yazidis, including 40 children, have been killed in the past week, local officials say. Many more have received direct threats, either from the advancing militants or members of nearby Sunni communities allied with them. “They were our neighbours and now they are our killers,” said Atyas.
“It’s not like this is a one-off incident,” said the Unicef spokeswoman Juliette Touma. “We are almost back to square zero in terms of the preparedness and the supplies. Enormous numbers of people have been crossing the border since June.
“The stresses are enormous; dehydration, fatigue, people sometimes having to walk for days. The impact on kids is very physical, let alone the psychological impact.”
The Kurdish minority Yazidis have long been regarded as devil worshippers by Sunni jihadists who have targeted them since the US invasion. As the extremists’ latest and most potent incarnation, the Islamic State (Isis), has steadily conquered Iraq’s north, the small, self-contained community has been especially vulnerable.
Isis forces advanced across north-western Iraq almost unchecked since a small band of hardliners stormed Iraq’s second city, Mosul, on 10 June, sending the Iraqi army fleeing and shattering the central government’s control.
Flush with weapons looted from Iraqi arsenals, Isis sacked Tikrit and advanced on Kirkuk. With new recruits lured or pressganged along the way, it has captured five oilfields and three cities, an 800-mile stretch of border with Syria. It has menaced Baghdad and is now within striking distance of Iraq’s two largest dams.
An Iraqi Yazidi family that fled the violence in Sinjar An Iraqi Yazidi family that fled the violence in Sinjar take refuge in Dohuk. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
“The situation is slowly tipping in their favour,” said Dr Hisham al-Hashimi, Iraq’s leading expert on Isis. “They won’t take the dam near Mosul, but Haditha [at the centre of Iraq’s water and energy supply grid] will be very hard to defend.
“They are very close to Baghdad airport. If they breached the perimeter, even with a symbolic attack, it would be enormous propaganda value for them.”
Iraq’s beleaguered military has been unable to muster a meaningful push back against the jihadists and is under intense pressure to support the Yazidis with air strikes and food drops. A series of spectacular defeats has seriously eroded its credibility. Baghdad claimed on Wednesday that its military had carried out an air strike on a Mosul prison which killed scores of jihadists and freed an unknown number of prisoners. The area was impossible to access and the numbers of fatalities could not be verified. However, witnesses reported damage to the prison and relatives rushed to the gates in the hope of rescuing detained family members.
Kurdish Peshmurga troops, long regarded as a more formidable fighting force, had been defending Sinjar, but they too were forced to withdraw as Isis advanced. Kurdish officials say their forces were seriously outgunned by the jihadists, who were using heavy weapons looted from Iraqi bases.
The same weapons are being used to consolidate Isis’s hold on much of western Iraq. The group has significantly boosted its numbers by tapping into Iraq’s estranged Sunni population, which has been marginalised by the Shia majority government since the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein more than 11 years ago.
“I would say there are now between 30,000 and 50,000 of them,” Hashimi said. “Of those, I would say 30% are ideologues. The others have joined out of fear or coercion.”
Yazidi members demonstrate outside UN offices in Erbil Yazidi members demonstrate outside UN offices in Erbil against the Isis violence. Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images
The once dominant US military and powerful embassy now play next to no role in Iraq, with Iraqi militias reporting to Iranian generals increasingly taking the lead in the fight against the jihadists.
“Iraq is spiralling out of control,” said Ali Khedery, the former longest-serving US official in Baghdad. “The centrifugal forces are spinning so quickly. They are on one timeline and Washington is on another. I am beyond concerned.”
Khedery, who reported to five US ambassadors and three US central command generals and is now chairman of the Dubai-based consultancy Dragoman Partners, said: “Everybody is retreating to their corners. And there is no credible international actor that I can see that is trying to bring it together again.
“It definitely is an existential threat to the Iraqi government and I think it represents yet another manifestation of the disintegration of Iraq as we know it.
“Iranian overreach, the genocide in Syria, [Nouri] al-Maliki’s consolidation of power in a very sectarian way, have all led to the disillusionment, the disenfranchisement of the Sunni Arabs, who have fatally, but perhaps understandably, chosen to consummate a deal with the devil. Now we are locked in a race to the bottom.”
Additional reporting by Saud al-Murrani