In a city to the north brutalized by IS, Iraq tests its power

SINJAR, Iraq (AP) – One by one, the flags belonging to a patchwork of the Armed Forces were lowered in a northern Iraqi city previously brutalized by the Islamic State group. The territorial claims symbolized by each have been replaced by the vibration of only one: that of the Iraqi state.

The hoisting of the national flag in Sinjar, home to Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority, is the result of an agreement that has been made for months for the federal government to restore order to a tangled web of paramilitaries that sowed chaos in the district during the turmoil that followed IS’s release three years ago.

This month, the Iraqi army was deployed there for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Lieutenant Imad Hasan climbed a rocky climb overlooking the deserted ruins of the old town of Sinjar, unoccupied since the IS was displaced. His gaze fell on a watchman on the other side of the mountain – the last, he said, which belongs to a local branch of an outlaw Kurdish guerrilla group known as the PKK.

“We have problems with them,” he said. “Their leaders agreed to withdraw, but some of their fighters did not.”

Closing the deal was difficult enough. Implementing it brings new problems. Critics say it will take more than a flag change to cement the rule of law in Sinjar.

The Yazidis, traumatized by the mass slaughter and slavery that IS unleashed against them, do not trust the Iraqi authorities who say they have abandoned them to the brutality of the militants. With the weak central government, they fear that militias – including Iran-backed Shi’ite factions – will gain dominion over them.

The militias that have been policing Sinjar for the past three years are a mix. They include peshmerga fighters from Iraq’s Kurdish autonomy zone, as well as the PKK and its affiliate made up of local Yazidi fighters, called the Sinjar Resistance Units or YBS. There are also Yazidi units belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella group of state-sanctioned paramilitaries, created in 2014 to defeat ISIS.

Sinjar is already recovered. The city center was teeming with buyers, merchants – and an occasional tank from the Iraqi army. More than 200,000 Yazidis displaced by the 2014 IS attack are returning – about 21,600 returning between June and September, often at the rate of previous years.

But scratch the surface and almost everyone harbors raw and unresolved trauma. Everyone vividly remembers the IS attack that murdered parents and children, enslaved thousands of women and caused survivors to flee to Sinjar Mountain.

At the Sinjar market, a farmer, Zaidan Khalaf, introduced himself first by telling the Associated Press how many relatives he lost to IS: 18. Others in the market did the same.

“We have lost our dignity,” he said.

Communities remain deeply divided and bitterly resentful of each other.

“What agreement?” mocked Farzo Mato Sabo, an 86-year-old man in the predominantly Yazidi village of Tal Binat, south of Sinjar. She and her three daughters were taken by ISIS militants and later saved by smugglers. Eleven of their relatives have yet to be found.

“I lost everyone,” she sobbed. “Will it bring them back?”

Neighboring Tal Binat is the Sunni Arab village of Khailo.

“We used to be like brothers, but now the Yazidis are far from us,” said a tribal elder, Sheikh Naif Ibrahim. “They cannot distinguish between civilians and IS members.”

Many Yazidis accuse local Sunni Arabs of supporting ISIS. Since the fall of the militants, Sunni Arabs have been at odds with Yazidi militias – and several Sunnis have been killed. At the same time, many Yazidis reject the Kurdish peshmerga, who consider the Sinjar area to be part of their domain.

“Seven flags ruled over us, you never knew who had power over you on what day,” said Khalaf, the farmer.

The UN has focused on returning displaced Yazidis, but this is not the only criterion for success, said Sajad Jiyad, a member of The Century Foundation. “It’s about services, schools, security and the ability to get around without being shaken by various groups,” he said.

“This is a test of the effectiveness of postwar governance and liberation,” he said. “Is the government prepared enough to allow a return to normality?”

The Iraqi military will secure the area for now, with other factions leaving their positions, although many remain in the Sinjar area. Under the plan, the Kurdish authority must appoint a mayor – a prospect that many Yazidis are opposed to – and the local police will eventually take over security, working under the supervision of the government’s intelligence agency and the National Security Adviser. The plan calls for 2,500 new security guards to be hired locally.

Most of the Yazidi leaders and residents interviewed said they were angry that the community was not consulted by the government in drawing up the plan.

“We are the ones who sacrifice, we lose our lives,” said Fahed Hamed, mayor of Sinjar district. “We should have been the main interlocutors.”

“We want a strength of its own. We don’t trust anyone. “

The force that locals rely on is a faction the plan seeks to expel – the YBS, whose fighters are mostly Sinjar Yazidis. While other forces withdrew from the IS attack in 2014, many remember that it was YBS that fought to ensure a safe route for civilians.

“They were the only ones left to protect us,” said Sherko Khalaf, a mukhtar from the Yazidi village.

Despite protests from residents, the negotiations led to the withdrawal of YBS from downtown Sinjar.

The YBS fighters interviewed said they expected to be included as a unit of the Popular Mobilization Forces, giving them the necessary political legitimacy. A portion of the 2,500-3,500 YBS fighters is already on the PMF payroll.

In theory, the plan foresees an end to the presence of the PMF in the city as well. So far, they are supporting forces and protecting the outskirts of Sinjar. But Khal Ali, the commander of the Lalish Brigades, a Yazidi unit in the group, told the AP: “The (PMF) will remain forever, we are kings over the heads of the security forces in Sinjar.”

This perspective divided the Yazidis. Some want Yazidi PMF factions to be included in the security agreement. Others fear that this will put Sinjar under the influence of Shi’ite Arab factions close to Iran, which dominate the umbrella group.

“If the international community and the central government do not care about Sinjar, the PMF will take control,” said a prominent Yazidi leader, requesting anonymity to speak freely. “That is clear.”