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Iraq's Yazidis call for autonomy as conflict flares between army, PKK affiliates

Ongoing tensions due to regional interference to settle scores among rivals threaten new acts of violence, menacing the Yazidi minority concentrated in the area.
Displaced Iraqis from the Yazidi community, who fled violence between Islamic State (IS) group jihadists and Peshmerga fighters in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, sit in a field near a camp for internally displaced persons (IDP) in the Sharya area some 15 kilometres from the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk on May 20, 2015.

More than 40 Yazidi community leaders from Sinjar signed a petition on March 13, demanding self-rule in Sinjar, the addition of the Ezidxane Asayish (Security Forces of Ezidkhan) to the security forces, and other demands related to services and job opportunities. The Ezidxane Asayish are the Yazidi police forces in areas controlled by the Sinjar Resistance Units, which are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Over the past few days, the city of Sinjar — disputed between Baghdad and Erbil — has been the stage of emerging tensions between the Iraqi army and advocates of the PKK refusing entry to the army.

The army’s entry is part of the Sinjar Agreement signed between the Iraqi government and the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on Jan. 9, 2020, to normalize the situation in the district.

The Sinjar Agreement, which received unanimous local and international support except from circles close to the PKK and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), stipulated under its administrative section that a new district officer known as a "qaimaqam" (prefect) shall be chosen for the independent Sinjar district by the joint committee and the governor of Ninevah, and other administrative positions shall be reviewed by the joint committee formed by both parties.

The security section of the agreement tasked the local police and the national security and intelligence apparatuses exclusively with the security of the district and removing all other armed formations outside of the district, in addition to appointing 2,500 security officers within the Internal Security Forces in Sinjar and ending the presence of informal armed groups.

Factions close to the PMU that were previously trained by the PKK refused to implement the Sinjar Agreement and demanded merging their forces with the security forces that will be formed, including the Ezidxane Asayish that comprise more than 700 Sinjar residents.

Dakhil Murad, a leader supporting self-rule, told Al-Monitor that this demand is old and has been proposed during meetings with Iraqi leaders, including Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. He noted that the idea is inspired by areas controlled by the PKK, and it is the ideal solution for Sinjar and has received public approval.

Murad said this demand will contribute to Sinjar’s own people governing it and keeping political conflicts at bay. Yazidi forces will also be merged with Iraqi security forces since Sinjar is an Iraqi city. The agreement should have been between Sinjar and Baghdad rather than between Erbil and Baghdad. Murad noted the government is incapable of finding a solution that pleases all parties.

Daoud Sheikh Jundi, who is in charge of the formations of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sinjar, told Al-Monitor that he supports the proposition of turning Sinjar into a province and asserted that his party had suggested a relevant project and seriously tried with the remaining parties in Ninevah and the district council.

He added, “Sinjar deserves to become an independent district because of its geographical location, in addition to the Yazidi presence and the 2014 disaster they endured. Other components in the area will benefit from this, but the issue of self-rule or autonomy is not mentioned in the Iraqi Constitution. We support untangling the situation in Sinjar as soon as possible.”

Haider Shushu, commander of the Ezidxane forces affiliated with the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs in the Kurdistan Region and stationed in some areas of Sinjar, said during a phone call with Al-Monitor that “turning the district into self-rule is a difficult and complex issue that cannot happen within 50 years. It is the policy of the PKK, which is definitely rejected. We hope to transform Sinjar into a province linked to the center, which will further serve the Yazidis.”

Shushu praised the Iraqi army’s actions and restraint when facing attacks from demonstrators representing the PKK. He said the Iraqi army respects the sacrifices of the Yazidis and what they have endured. For that reason, the army is highly disciplined when dealing with the Yazidis.

A member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Muhammad Zangana, told Al-Monitor, “The demands of the parties close to the PKK for Sinjar’s autonomy are illegal because they are not a political party in Iraq or Kurdistan. Besides, the international classification of this party does not allow such demands. The parties took over Sinjar by forcing their hand on the KRG through incitement from the government of [Nouri] al-Maliki and [Haider] al-Abadi.”

Zangana believes the demands of these parties are nothing but political suicide that will only expose the region to many endless problems and calamities. He accused the Arab neighbors of Yazidis in Sinjar of committing genocide.

Zangana demanded the Iraqi government take swift action against this demand because Sinjar is one of the disputed areas covered by Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution. He said, "No one has the right to determine its fate other than the people of the region. Baghdad and Erbil also have reached an agreement to expel militias affiliated with the PKK and the PMU, as well as the presence of coalition forces fighting the Islamic State (IS) in the region." He considered this step only a media stunt, warning of serious consequences if the government keeps silent.

Turkey occasionally threatens to attack Sinjar district to expel the forces associated with the PKK, which announced its withdrawal from the city at the end of 2018. This matter is a stumbling block in Iraqi-Turkish relations.

At the end of last month, the Iranian and Turkish ambassadors in Iraq exchanged media attacks against the backdrop of the intervention in Sinjar, and the matter almost developed into a diplomatic crisis.

About 60% of the residents of Sinjar, which is the last area of ​​the Yazidi presence in Iraq, did not return due to political disputes over the district. More than four years have passed since it was retaken from IS, which occupied it in the summer of 2014 and committed genocide, according to the Kidnapped Yazidis Rescue Office in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

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