Three Yazidi Villages Bombed in Iraq

Three northern villages that were home to the Yazidi people, one of Iraq's tiniest minorities, were hit by a string of truck bombs. At least 200 are dead and hundreds wounded. The death toll could rise as bodies are recovered from clay homes that collapsed.

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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie, sitting in for Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The bloodshed between religious sects in Iraq has now brought devastation to one of that country's tiniest minorities. Three northern villages that are home to the Yazidi people were hit by a string of truck bombs, leaving at least 200 dead and hundreds wounded. Some radical Islamists accused the Yazidis of devil worship because they mix Islam with elements of ancient Persian religion. And these were the deadliest attacks in Iraq so far this year.

And NPR's Jamie Tarabay joins us on the line from Baghdad. And, Jamie, give us some more details.

JAMIE TARABAY: From the government officials and the police in the area, we understand that the tanker and vehicles all blew up at the same time. They say that the blasts were simultaneous and all caused by suicide bombers. Two of the explosions struck the village of Qahataniya and its market, which was full of people at the time who were doing their evening shopping. The force of the blasts just leveled the single-story mud houses inside the village, trapping people inside.

The two other bombs hit the villages of Jazeera and Tal Azir. And even now, in the morning, people are still being pulled from the wreckage. Last night, rescue workers were broadcasting calls for people to donate blood. And American military helicopters evacuated many of the wounded to Dahuk, the Kurdish city in the north of the country. Now, the work is still continuing. There are still many people missing, and officials expect the toll to rise even more.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about the Yazidi people.

TARABAY: They're ethnic Kurds, and they've pretty much been able to stay away from a lot of the violence that has caught up the other sects in this country -have become entangled in. But there have been incidents that have brought the Yazidis into the public eye. There was an incident in April this year when a young Yazidi girl was stoned to death by her own people because she'd formed a relationship with a Sunni Arab man. Now, the stoning of this girl was filmed -recorded on cell phones by the men who were doing this or watching it. And it was broadcast on the Internet, which just sparked so much outrage here and around the world, and it set off a number of retaliatory attacks by Sunni Arabs. A couple of weeks after she was killed, Sunni gunman shot 23 Yazidi men dead, and recently, there have been more deaths reported.

Radical Islamists, as you said, they considered the Yazidis to be devil worshipers and infidels because they worship an angel figure who, literally, had - he has several different names, but one of the names that he goes by means devil to Christians and to Muslims. But the Yazidis say they don't believe in the devil at all. So this is something that they deny.

MONTAGNE: And just briefly, U.S. troops have launched what's being called a major operation northeast of Baghdad. Give us some details on that.

TARABAY: About 16,000 American and Iraqi troops have begun this new operation in search of insurgents who have fled Baqubah, north of Baghdad, following military operations there. This is one of the consequences of the U.S. military surge that we've seen over the past few months. As there have been more troops inside Baghdad, insurgents who used to fight there have fled to outlying areas. And many of them have gone to established bases in Baqubah. But in March, the U.S. military began operations to get rid of them there. And now this is just a continuation of that process.

According to reports that we've seen, the Air Force dropped 9,000 pounds of munition on what is said was an al-Qaida training camp, and that three suspected militants were killed.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. NPR's Jamie Tarabay in Baghdad.

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General Calls Attack on Yazidis 'Ethnic Cleansing'

Who Are the Yazidis?

Yazidi is an obscure pre-Islamic religious sect making up 30 percent of the population in and around Mosul. The group, also found in other areas of the Middle East including Iran, Turkey, Armenia and Syria — and in Russia — is made up primarily of ethnic Kurds. Estimates indicate there are fewer than 500,000, and possibly even fewer than 100,000, Yazidis across the globe. The rejection that evil and the devil exist is one the central principles of the group.

The death toll from four suicide bombings in northwest Iraq climbed to at least 250 on Wednesday, prompting a U.S. general to label the coordinated attacks on a small Kurdish sect "ethnic cleansing."

"This is an act of ethnic cleansing, if you will, almost genocide," U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, told CNN.

Mixon said the Yazidis — the Kurdish sect that was targeted — live in a very remote part of Ninevah province where there is little security and has been no need for military forces. However, the Yazidis are sometimes targeted by Muslim extremists, who consider the Yazidis to be infidels.

On Tuesday, four trucks loaded with explosives were detonated almost simultaneously, killing more people than any other concerted attack on a single area since the war began.

On Wednesday, emergency workers and grieving relatives uncovered dozens of bodies in the debris of clay houses. Zayan Othman, the health minister of the nearby autonomous Kurdish region, said the casualties include at least 250 dead and 350 wounded.

A week ago, the Islamic State in Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, distributed leaflets warning residents near where the bombings took place that an attack was imminent because Yazidis are "anti-Islamic."

Dakhil Qassim, mayor of the nearby town of Sinjar, said the four trucks approached the town of Qahataniya, 75 miles west of Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, from dirt roads and all exploded within minutes of each other. He said the casualty tolls were expected to rise.

"We are still digging with our hands and shovels because we can't use cranes because many of the houses were built of clay," Qassim said. "We are expecting to reach the final death toll tomorrow or day after tomorrow as we are getting only pieces of bodies."

The bombings came as extremists staged other bold attacks on Tuesday: leveling a key bridge outside Baghdad and abducting five officials from an Oil Ministry compound in the capital in a raid using gunmen dressed as security officers. Nine U.S. soldiers also were reported killed, including five in a helicopter crash.

The carnage dealt a serious blow to U.S. efforts to pacify the country with just weeks to go before the top U.S. commander Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker are to deliver a pivotal report to the U.S. Congress amid a fierce debate over whether to begin withdrawing American troops from Iraq.

U.S. officials believe extremists are attempting to regroup across northern Iraq after being driven from strongholds in and around Baghdad, and commanders have warned they expected Sunni insurgents to step up attacks in a bid to upstage the report.

The Yazidis comprise a primarily Kurdish religious sect with ancient roots that worships an angel figure considered to be the devil by some Muslims and Christians. Yazidis, who don't believe in hell or evil, deny that.

The sect has been under fire since some members stoned a Yazidi teenager to death in April. She had converted to Islam and fled her family with a Muslim boyfriend, and police said 18-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad was killed by relatives who disapproved of the match.

A grainy video showing gruesome scenes of the woman's killing was later posted on Iraqi Web sites. Its authenticity could not be independently verified, but recent attacks on Yazidis have been blamed on al-Qaida-linked Sunni insurgents seeking revenge.

A curfew was in place Wednesday across towns west of Mosul, and U.S. and Iraqi forces were conducting house-to-house searches in response to the bombings, according to Iraqi police and Army officers who spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns. Twenty suspects were arrested, they said.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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