Ancient sct navigates Iraq’s new voting process

April 8, 2009 - 0:0

DOHUK, Iraq (The NYT) -— Prince Tahseen Saeed Ali, whose business card identifies him as “the Prince of the Yazidis in Iraq and the World and President of the Yazidi High Religious Council,” is a confident man.

It may be an odd posture, given that his people have suffered centuries of oppression and prejudice, tarred by the false claim that they are devil worshipers and caught in a battle zone between often antagonistic powers, the Muslim Arabs and the Muslim Kurds.
But a group so small and so widely misunderstood does not survive for centuries, much of the time at the mercy of far larger forces, without learning how to play politics. And few in Iraq have played that game as well as the Yazidis, whose ability to exploit Iraq’s byzantine electoral rules yielded them nearly a quarter of the seats in the government of Nineveh, one of the country’s largest provinces.
“We kept telling the Americans, the Arabs, the Kurds that this is the real size of the Yazidis in this region, but nobody paid attention to us,” said Prince Ali, 75, who has seen at least a dozen heads of state come and go in Iraq. “So we chose to do it this way.”
Not only have they made their presence felt, the Yazidis managed to flip the power structure on its head: this small sect, which for six years existed as a client of the far more powerful Muslim Kurds to the north, now has more political sway in Nineveh than its patron.
Yazidis, by most estimates, far outnumber Muslim Kurds in Nineveh, making the Kurds dependent on their support to bolster their claims to the region. And the Yazidis have largely given it; almost all of them who won in the election were members of Kurdish political parties. In exchange for that support, the newly victorious Yazidis are demanding a greater degree of Yazidi power in Kurdistan.
“Frankly,” said the prince, who wears the long, bushy beard often seen on older Yazidis, “now we feel the Kurds are more responsive to us.”
But the partnership pivots on something deeper and more complex: the murky, misunderstood Yazidi identity.
Yazidis are a zealously insular group, adherents of an ancient, monotheistic faith involving a 12th-century mystic and a peacock angel. After that, nearly everything about them is subject to debate.
Kurds, most of whom are Sunni Muslim, say Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who simply follow a different religion. Many Yazidis, too, say they are Kurds, and it is not uncommon to hear the Yazidis describe themselves as the original Kurds.
Without quibbling over such distinctions, the Kurds are happy to include them. “They are spreading rumors that we are 3 percent of the population” in Nineveh, said Layla Rikani, one of the few Kurds on the new provincial council. This election proved that “we are 33 percent of the population.”
Kurds claim a chain of areas across Iraq, including Nineveh, that lie outside Kurdistan, arguing that the areas are ancestrally theirs but that they were driven from them under Saddam Hussein.
Kurdish leaders are pushing for a referendum on the fate of these areas and say the strong showing of the Kurdish parties in the disputed areas serves as a sort of mini-referendum.
The Yazidis, well aware of their importance to Kurdish political success, seized on the recent introduction of an “open list” system of elections, under which voters can pick individual candidates rather than having to vote for a list as a whole.
Of the 37 candidates running on the Kurdish list in January’s provincial election in Nineveh, 10 were Yazidi. On Election Day, the Yazidis chose their candidates individually rather than voting for the list as a whole. As a result, 8 of the 12 winners on the Kurdish list were Yazidis. There is another Yazidi on the council as well, in a reserved minority seat.
That gives them 9 of the 37 seats, a proportion second only to the Sunni Arabs on the council.
Kurdish political leaders claim the success as their own, insisting that it strengthens their case here, including helping to justify the Kurdish military presence, which can be seen at checkpoints and in town centers throughout the province.
The Kurdish militias were brought in to Nineveh in 2003 by the American forces in the north, and on this point Kurds and Arabs agree: it was a big mistake. “We paid a high price on that,” said Khasro Goran, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in Mosul, the provincial capital.
Kurds became associated with what many Iraqis see as an occupying force, and say they have reaped few benefits in return. Arabs saw the alliance as a sign that the Americans did not trust them and could not serve as honest brokers in a long-simmering conflict.
Minorities like Christians and Yazidis have come to feel like pawns, forced to alienate themselves from one side or the other.
In many of the steeple-crowded Christian towns and the Yazidi towns with their conical temples, the Kurdish forces have never left. With the Kurds providing supplies and security during the most violent years of the war, many residents responded with political support. But that support has not been unanimous.
“Most of the Yazidi sheiks who joined the Kurds joined because of money,” said Sheik Saeed Mendo Hammu, a member of a Yazidi political party that opposes allying with the Kurds. “This is what they did during Saddam’s era. They joined him because he paid them. And they claimed at the time they were Arabs.”
Though he is fiercely anti-Kurd, Sheik Saeed said he was in contact with several of the Yazidi winners on the Kurdish list. They have indicated that they will work for Yazidi interests, he said, and he will support them if they do. “We are not Kurd, we are Yazidi,” he said. “We are fed up with fear.”
Yazidi leaders who support the Kurds are more diplomatic, pledging support for Kurdish annexation even as they boast of their electoral dexterity. But the swagger is there.
“We’ve faced so many massacres and accusations in our long history,” said Karim Suleiman, head of the Kurd-financed Lalesh Cultural Center in Ain Sifni. “There were many fatwas that labeled us infidels and allowed people to control our money, property and lands. All of this gave us a foundation to use the democratic environment that was available to us.”