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Iraq's Yazidis in Crossfire In Baghdad

On May 14, 2013, 12 employees of an alcohol shop in Baghdad, 10 of whom were Yazidis, were killed by armed assailants amid increasing religious extremism in the country.
A shopkeeper arranges bottles in a shop in the Zayouna area of the Iraqi capital Baghdad, on May 15, 2013, the day after gunmen armed with silenced weapons shot dead 12 people at a row of alcohol shops in the Zayouna area of the capital.  AFP PHOTO/ KHALIL AL-MURSHIDI        (Photo credit should read KHALIL AL-MURSHIDI/AFP/Getty Images)

On the evening of May 14, 2013, dozens of people had gathered in front of a small shop in Baghdad to buy alcohol. Rabie Square — a vital commercial center in central Baghdad — was filled with the sounds of cars and shoppers as unidentified assailants emerged from four-wheel drive vehicles and opened heavy fire on alcohol vendors and workers, the majority of whom were Yazidi youth. 

In a phone conversation with Al-Monitor, an officer on the federal police force said: "A group of armed assailants emerged from four vehicles in the Ghadeer neighborhood in eastern Baghdad. They entered a shop that sells alcoholic beverages and opened fire on those in the shop using guns fitted with silencers. This resulted in 12 people being killed, 10 of whom were Yazidi."

Adherents of the Yazidi religion have settled in Iraq. They are the remnants of an ancient Eastern religion that still maintains some of the traditions and beliefs of the people of Mesopotamia. 

There are more than 500,000 Yazidis in Iraq, the majority of whom live in the Nineveh and Dohuk provinces (in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq). About 20,000 Iraqi Yazidis have emigrated to Europe, mostly settling in Germany and Switzerland. The Lalish temple, located in the Sheikhan region of the Nineveh province, is the sacred religious center for followers of this religion. 

The majority of Yazidi youth emigrate to Baghdad to work in the alcoholic beverage trade. The Iraqi tourism law that was ratified prior to 2003 only allows non-Muslims to work in this trade. Since the fall of the regime of former President Saddam Hussein, Iraqi legislators have not changed or modified this legal clause. 

Fear of militias and extremists groups has been a major cause behind the decline in employment seen among religious minorities in Iraq. Selling alcohol is considered a hazardous job in Iraq, since shops and vendors have previously faced attacks with machine guns and grenades. 

Owners of alcohol shops, who refused to disclose their identities, said that they do not receive official permits from the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism, but they are forced to pay "sums of money to Iraqi army units to provide protection."

The work being done by the Ministry of Tourism — headed by Minister Liwa Semsem, a Shiite leader affiliated with Muqtada al-Sadr — is unclear, and the ministry's official website lacks any regulations or guidelines for those wishing to register alcohol shops. 

It seems that some soldiers have cautioned owners of alcohol shops that they may issue orders to shut down alcohol storehouses and prohibit the sale of alcohol. 

On April 9, 2012, security forces attacked nightclubs and shops selling alcohol in Baghdad and shut them down after owners and patrons were assaulted based on charges that they were working without official permission.

On the night of Sep. 4, 2012, Iraqi security forces raided recreational clubs in Baghdad. Security officers presented an official statement signed by the Office of the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces ordering their closure, and soldiers and members of the security forces destroyed everything in these clubs and violently expelled their patrons. 

During a press conference attended by Al-Monitor last year, Ali al-Alaq, a Shiite member of the parliamentary Religious Endowments Committee, called for legislation to combat alcohol. 

It's worth mentioning that Sadruddin Qabbanji, a Friday preacher for Shiite Muslims in the city of Karbala, urged the Iraqi government to follow [the concept of] "the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice," and stated that what the Iraqi army did was "correct." 

The Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice is an Islamic law that permits clergy to impose punishments on anyone who commits a violation of Islamic law.

Al-Monitor received via email a statement issued by the Department for Yazidi Affairs, an organ of the Iraqi government, which stated, "Criminal acts, including murder and persecution, are being carried out against members of the Yazidi religion and other minorities."

The department, which was established after 2003, stressed that "Iraqi religious minorities, particularly the Yazidis, suffer from difficult circumstances, death threats, harsh marginalization and persecution." Meanwhile, the statement held, "the security force is responsible for what happened, due to its failure to defend the lives of the people and protect them from terrorism."

The Lalish Center, a civil society organization concerned with defending the rights of Yazidis in Iraq, said in a statement Al-Monitor received via email, "It's interesting and worth noting that (the attacks against alcohol vendors) occurred in an area that is heavily fortified by the security services."

The center clarified that "the militants carried out their crimes in cold blood, after storming a police security checkpoint. They did not kill any police officers, they merely tied them up and then attacked a number of shops that employ Yazidi workers, whose economic conditions force them to risk their lives to provide for their families."

As I was writing this story, eyewitnesses told Al-Monitor that the security forces had ordered all shops that sell alcohol to close. Al-Monitor's source said that soldiers told them they were preventing them from [selling alcohol] to limit armed attacks on the lives of shop owners. 

Ali Abel Sadah is a Baghdad-based writer for both Iraqi and Arab media. He has been a managing editor for local newspapers as well as a political and cultural reporter for more than 10 years.

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