"Islamic State" still dominates parts of northern Iraq a year after forcing thousands of Yazidis to flee. US airstrikes have had little effect, and criticism of Kurdish peshmerga has grown, as Birgit Svensson reports.
"We want the good people to hear our prayers and free our country as soon as possible," said Johanna Boutros Moshe, the Syrian Catholic Archbishop of Mosul. On Thursday morning, he gathered in the ruins of a fourth-century monastery with other Christian dignitaries to pray for the liberation of his homeland. Mar Mattai is one of the oldest monasteries in the world. Currently, it can only be visited with special authorization because it is in the middle of a restricted military zone. The liberators the archbishop speaks of have taken up positions within sight of the monastery. The headquarters of the Kurdish peshmerga's 12th Brigade is perched on a hilltop about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northwest of the Kurdish city of Irbil.
In June 2014, militants took control of the city of Mosul, with its 2 million citizens; the Anbar province capital, Tikrit; and large swaths of the provinces of Saladin, Nineveh and Diyala. Four weeks later, the "Islamic State" was officially proclaimed. But IS's appetite for conquest was not sated. On August 3, the group attacked the Yazidi city of Sinjar, home to 100,000 residents and, four days after that, the Christian city of Bakhdida and its 60,000 residents. IS's territorial expansion was then halted just shy of Irbil and Dohuk. The United States sent in bombers, and once again Washington was conducting military operations in Iraq.
Since then, countless sorties have been flown across Iraq and Syria by a US-led coalition of about 20 countries. Clear-cut victories have been rare. Whenever the United States announces successes to the international press, IS regroups and counterattacks a few days later. For instance, just one week after coalition forces liberated Tikrit, IS recaptured it. In December, the Pentagon announced that the coalition had been able to decisively defeat IS following the start of the peshmerga offensive in northwestern Iraq just prior to Christmas. Indeed, the area of land stretching up to the Sinjar Mountains, as well as the Mosul Dam, are no longer in danger. But the city of Sinjar itself, from which thousands of Yazidis were tragically forced to flee, still remains under IS control. The group's black flag also flies above Bakhdida, Bashiqa and Bartella, majority-Christian cities still waiting to be liberated by the peshmerga.
From the headquarters of the peshmerga brigade near the Mar Mattai monastery, one gazes out across the biblical Nineveh plains. IS's black flag can be clearly seen through the brigadier general's binoculars. It flies from the mosques, cell towers and church steeples in Bashiqa in order to show who is in control of the city. It is only 3 kilometers away from where the peshmerga are positioned. Yet that short distance seems insurmountable at the moment. "We've built mounds, dug trenches, and built more mounds to shore up our position," the commander said. "They have land mines and TNT charges." More than 1,500 peshmerga have already lost their lives in the fight. Whenever they attempt to recapture IS territory, they end up stepping on land mines. The general is hoping that experts will soon arrive to tell him and his fighters how to detect and defuse the mines.
A year of suffering for Yazidis
Nareen Shammo gets tears in her eyes when she thinks about the fate of her hometown. "Bashiqa was little Iraq," the 28-year-old said. For centuries, all of the different ethnic groups that made up the country lived with one another here. Nareen is a Yazidi, but that was always of less importance to her than the mix of groups in her city. She had friends from all different backgrounds. As a child she could see mosques, churches and Yazidi cemeteries from the hilltops above the city. "I was happy that we all lived together," she said. "It will never be the same again." Now she lives in Irbil, and is skeptical about whether she'll ever be able to return home. The peshmerga are situated at the spot where Nareen once stood as a child. She blames them for her misery, saying that if the soldiers had not retreated, the Yazidis would never have had to flee.
Turkmen and Christians also speak of the failure of the peshmerga to provide them with the protection that they were promised. In June 2014, thousands of Iraqi soldiers deserted the army, leaving the people and their territory to IS without putting up a fight. Two months later, the peshmerga capitulated to the terrorists in similar fashion. The uncontested flight of between 8,000 and 10,000 peshmerga fighters has left a bitter taste in the mouths of the locals. It is said that about 700 peshmerga even deserted to IS. Now, blame is coming from all corners. The myth of the Kurdish freedom fighter that has evolved over the years has been severely tarnished. The humiliation has been hard to bear for the peshmerga. There is much talk of conspiracy. One often hears that the Americans ordered the Kurds to retreat, even that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad is working in concert with IS. Or that former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite Muslim, sought revenge, and so initiated the largely Sunni IS's second attack on the Kurds. The possibility that none wants to believe is the one most plausible and the one given by peshmerga soldiers themselves: They were ill-prepared and didn't have the hardware to fight back.
"We will hunt down those who committed this crime against the Yazidi, down to the last man," Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said at a memorial in Dohuk to honor the victims of last year's attack.
Nareen Shammo doesn't believe him anymore. "It was trust that the cruelties of IS destroyed," she said, summing up a common sentiment about Kurdish forces: "They abandoned us, and left us at the mercy of IS."