Saving Sinjar From a Super 8

How did a small community of Yazidis from Lincoln, Nebraska, convince the White House to go to war in Iraq?

It was on the afternoon of Tuesday, Aug. 5, when Hadi Pir, a Yazidi man who had emigrated from Iraq to the United States after working as an interpreter for U.S. forces in Iraq, hopped into a van traveling more than 1,000 miles from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Washington, D.C.

Pir, who had lived in the United States for less than three years, made the trip along with dozens of other Iraqi Yazidis living in Nebraska. They originally planned to simply hold a rally in front of the White House -- but a little over 48 hours later, on minimal sleep and dressed in wrinkled clothes, Pir found himself seated in a Capitol Hill conference room briefing senior U.S. government officials on the situation in Iraq. For Pir, this was not only a political cause -- it was personal: His two uncles were trapped atop Mount Sinjar, in northern Iraq, along with all of his wife's immediate family.

"You know, the difference we made, we never imagined it was something we were going to do," he said.

Later that afternoon, from a Silver Spring, Maryland, hotel room, Pir watched President Barack Obama detail the plight of the Yazidis stranded on Mount Sinjar. The remarks paved the way for airdrops of humanitarian aid to the refugees as well as airstrikes, which U.S. officials recently announced had successfully lifted the Islamic State's siege on the beleaguered community.

Pir's tightly knit community in Nebraska -- the largest Yazidi population in the United States, at a little over 300 families -- first began to receive frantic text messages and phone calls from relatives and friends in Iraq on Aug. 3. Sunni fighters calling themselves the Islamic State were threatening Yazidis with death if they did not convert to Islam, the messages said, and residents were fleeing to the rugged mountain without food or water.

It was Pir's first-ever trip to Washington, and he had to leave his newborn daughter behind in Nebraska. The Yazidis who joined him "were just simple women and men," he said. "We didn't know anything about politics, but we came to plead for help."

Pir believes that the meetings the Yazidis held with government officials helped turn the tide within the Obama administration in favor of military action in Iraq -- the first of its kind since U.S. troops withdrew in late 2011, ending an unpopular and costly war. The group held two separate meetings, one with State Department Undersecretary Sarah Sewall and the other with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.

"We said, 'We know this mountain. We know this area. We know how we can get the people off [to safety],'" Pir said. "We told them our people are being slaughtered, dying of thirst -- this is going to be a massacre."

When he left the meeting with the State Department representatives, he said, many officials were in tears. A State Department official confirmed the meetings, describing the interactions as "humbling."

In the days that followed, as the siege on Mount Sinjar was loosened, Pir and a core group of three other Yazidis stayed behind in Washington, moving into cheaper accommodations in Maryland. Setting up a command center of sorts in a Super 8 motel room, they juggled phone calls and text messages from Iraq and remained in daily contact with the State Department, providing logistical information and humanitarian updates.

"We tell the State Department where exactly the people are, how many, when they move, where they move," he said. "They appreciate it. They told us, 'The people at the Department of Defense, they listen to you because they trust you.'"

Senior administration officials speaking on background said the information that Pir and his friends are providing is being used to determine where and when to carry out airstrikes in Iraq. Initially, the sources confirmed, the information was also used to coordinate humanitarian airdrops on the mountain.

Rather than shaping the administration's decision to use military force in Iraq, sources familiar with the Obama administration's decision-making process say that the Yazidis were effective in emphasizing the humanitarian component of a mission to save a beleaguered Iraqi minority. One longtime Washington lobbyist, who is currently working on behalf of the Syrian opposition, pointed out that measures aimed at protecting minorities in the Middle East always get more attention on Capitol Hill.

Reflecting on the apparent success of the Yazidi community's lobbying efforts for military intervention -- something those advocating on behalf of the Syrian opposition have been requesting for years -- the lobbyist said that perhaps the ultimate takeaway is: "Don't be Sunni."

Over the past three years, the House and Senate have adopted a number of bills aimed at expediting visa and asylum requests for Iraqi minority groups, especially Christians. The legislation has also called on the Iraqi government to offer minority religious groups greater legal protections. In 2013, both houses of Congress adopted legislation authorizing the appointment of a special envoy to promote religious freedom of religious minorities in the Near East and Central Asia -- despite protests from the State Department calling the creation of such a position "unnecessary, duplicative, and likely counterproductive."

Speaking on background, senior officials dealing with Iraq policy in the Obama administration rejected accusations that U.S. policy gives preferential treatment to minorities. Rather, they said, the decision to carry out airstrikes was based not on humanitarian concerns, but rather strategic and political ones -- and the deciding factor was the proximity of Islamic State militants to U.S. interests in the city of Erbil.

The unfolding humanitarian disaster on Mount Sinjar, one senior administration official said, was a "great concern" to the Obama administration -- but not the direct trigger for military action.

Regardless, Iraq's Yazidis were front and center in Washington in the days following the authorization of airstrikes. Members of the Nebraska Yazidi community estimated they gave more than 30 interviews to local, national, and international media outlets, a media sweep aided by the Institute for International Law and Human Rights, a Washington advocacy group specializing in Iraqi minority rights. The group's executive director, William Spencer, whom many Yazidis personally credit for facilitating their access to high-level officials in Washington, sat in on both the meetings with the State Department and the National Security Council ahead of Obama's Aug. 7 speech.

Now, two weeks after that spur-of-the-moment decision to drive to Washington, Pir says he is at once amazed by the change he believes he was able to achieve -- and frustrated by the limited scope of U.S. plans for further intervention.

While his side of the family in Iraq has escaped Mount Sinjar to the safety of Dohuk, in Iraq's Kurdish-controlled region, his wife's family has not been heard from in days. Pir is worried they have been killed or taken hostage -- and he wants the Obama administration to pursue a broader, more aggressive policy aimed at saving Iraq's minorities.

"The airstrikes and air cover saved thousands and thousands of lives," he said. "But if there were boots on the ground … we could save thousands and thousands more."

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images


The Soldiers of Sinjar

Portraits of ragtag fighters from Sinjar, Iraq, rallying to protect their homeland.

Photo Essay

The Soldiers of Sinjar

Forced from their homes, a ragtag group of Kurdish mountain men are headed home to fight the Islamic State to the death.

Photographs by Andrew Quilty

In order as pictured: Ziad Haji, 18; Sabah Shivan, 22; Ameen Xdr, 27; Ismail Alias, 23; Hatim Ido, 24; Qola Hassan, 43,
from Karse in Sinjar, Iraq; Kamal Khalo, 26; Rebar Mamo, 22; Xelef Xodeda, 18; Mahir Barkar, 19; Xesri Salih, 23; Xalid Shamo, 29;

Kawa Sinjari is a commander at a two-week-old militia training camp on the Syria-Iraq border. Here, he says, he is training men who "will suicide for" their cause.

Sinjari's men are from various villages in Sinjar—the district in northwestern Iraq from which thousands of (mostly) Yazidi families fled when Islamic State (IS) militants advanced west from Mosul, the center of their continued assault on Iraq since the June 5 invasion. On Aug. 17, photojournalist Andrew Quilty spent the day with Sinjari's unit in a run-down facility close to Peshkhabour on the Syrian side of the border with Iraq, in the northern Kurdish region. They are training, Sinjari says, to take back their homeland.

The men at the training camp wear matching uniforms and carry various incarnations of Kalashnikov rifles. Sinjari himself, however, is never without his U.S. military standard-issue M4 carbine, which he says was first given to then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's army by the United States before being captured by the Islamic State in the group's mid-June advance, until he himself wrested it away from an IS fighter, he says with a wry smile.

But these men come together not under a Yazidi flag but under one of geographical unity—for the protection of Sinjar. While the ragtag unit in training is made up of Yazidis, Muslims, and Christians, they consider themselves all to be Kurdish. Sinjari, 35, (who would not allow Quilty to photograph him) says they're not motivated by religious ideology, nor do they want to fight for territory outside the Sinjar region. "We tolerate all people. All people, all nations are the same [to us]," he says.

The men in Sinjari's unit are mostly in their early 20s or younger. Before the IS advance on Aug. 4, most were with the Iraqi army. Some were Peshmerga (Kurdish Iraqi military), and some were common workers. There are few among them who didn't have relatives killed or abducted by IS in the days that followed.

At the training camp they receive basic weapons provided by the YPG (the Kurdish acronym for the People's Protection Units), which maintains control of much of the northern Kurdish region of Syria and has recently become active in preventing the Syrian civil war from spreading to the region. The Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)—which is categorized by the United States as a terrorist organization—and the Kurdistan Regional Government are also contributing to the modest war chest, says Sinjari.

While he bemoans the lack of support they're receiving from the likes of the United States and NATO, Sinjari claims defiantly that it is not technical training and sophisticated weapons that his men need. "We have the soul and spirit of Apo," he says, referring to the imprisoned leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.

"Our souls are better protecting these people than weapons and tanks."

All photos by Andrew Quilty