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The stoning to death of a teenage girl belonging to the Yazidi religious sect because she fell in love with a Muslim man has led to a spiral of violence in northern Iraq in which 23 elderly factory workers have been shot dead and 800 Yazidi students forced to flee their university in Mosul.
The killings began with an act of brutality horrific even by Iraqi standards.
A 17-year-old girl called Doaa Aswad Dekhil from the town of Bashika in the northern province of Nineveh converted to Islam. She belonged to the Yazidi religion, a mixture of Islam, Judaism and Christianity as well as Zoroastrian and Gnostic beliefs. The 350,000-strong Kurdish- speaking Yazidi community is centred in the north and east of Mosul and has often faced persecution in the past, being denounced as “devil worshippers”.
On 7 April, Doaa returned home after she had converted to Islam in order to marry a Sunni Muslim who was also a Kurd. She had been told by a Sunni Muslim cleric that her family had forgiven her for her elopement and conversion. Instead she was met in Bashika by a large mob of 2,000 people led by members of her family.
What happened next was captured in a mobile phone video. It shows a dark-haired girl dressed in a red track suit top and black underwear with blood streaming from her face. As she tries to rise to her feet she is kicked and hit on the head with a concrete block.
Armed and uniformed police stand by watching her being killed over several minutes. Many in the crowd hold up their phone cameras to record the scene. Nobody tries to help her as she is battered to death.
The savagery of the lynching led to threats of retaliation. This part of Nineveh, though outside the jurisdiction of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is strongly under its influence. The murdered girl and her intended husband were Kurds. The KRG’s President, Massoud Barzani, held meetings with Yazidi leaders. Kurdish officials in Mosul said at the time that they had the situation under control. The KRG is now calling for an investigation into what happened, though the central government in Baghdad has little authority in the north of the country.
Retaliation when it came was savage. On 23 April a bus carrying back workers from a weaving factory in Mosul to Bashika, which has a Christian as well as a Yazidi population, was stopped by several cars filled with unidentified gunmen at about 2pm. They asked the Christians to get off the bus, according to the police account. They then took the bus to eastern Mosul city where they lined up the men, mostly elderly, against a wall and shot them to death.
The revenge killings led to two days of demonstrations in Bashika. Sunni Muslims, also Kurds, feared retaliation. Yazidis say that 204 members of their community have been killed since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Some 800 Yazidi students at Mosul university have since fled to Kurdish cities such as Dohuk where they are safe. They say they were told to convert or die.
Relations between all religious communities in Iraq have deteriorated over the past four years. The fall of Saddam Hussein led to a process in which the Shia, 60 per cent of the population, replaced the previously dominant Sunni who are only 20 per cent. The Sunni insurgency has always been sectarian and has killed Shia, Christians and Yazidis as heretics. In the Baghdad district of Dora the Christian community has been threatened in recent weeks and told to convert to Islam, pay protection money or be killed. Many have fled.
Sectarian war continues in Baghdad. A bomb exploded in a market in the Shia district of Bayaa in west Baghdad yesterday, killing 35 and wounding 80 people. “What did these innocent people do to be killed by a car bomb?” shouted a witness. “Where is the government? Where is security?” In practice, however, it is impossible to protect the crowded streets of Baghdad from vehicles packed with explosives.
PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.