Hear Joost Hilterman, Middle East Project Director of the International Crisis Group
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