Tens of thousands of members of one of Iraq’s oldest minorities have been stranded on a mountain in the country’s north-west, facing slaughter at the hands of jihadists surrounding them below if they flee, or death by dehydration if they stay.
UN groups say at least 40,000 members of the Yazidi sect, many of them women and children, have taken refuge in nine locations on Mount Sinjar, a craggy mile-high ridge identified in local legend as the final resting place of Noah’s ark.
Sinjar itself has been all but emptied of its 300,000 residents since jihadists stormed the city late on Saturday, but an estimated 25,000 people remain. “We are being told to convert or to lose our heads,” said Khuldoon Atyas, who has stayed behind to guard his family’s crops. “There is no one coming to help.”
Another man, who is hiding in the mountains and identified himself as Nafi'ee, said: “Food is low, ammunition is low and so is water. We have one piece of bread to share between 10 people. We have to walk 2km to get water. There were some air strikes yesterday [against the jihadists], but they have made no difference.”
At least 500 Yazidis, including 40 children, have been killed in the past week, local officials say. Many more have received direct threats, either from the advancing militants or members of nearby Sunni communities allied with them. “They were our neighbours and now they are our killers,” said Atyas.
“The situation is slowly tipping in their favour,” said Dr Hisham al-Hashimi, Iraq’s leading expert on Isis. “They won’t take the dam near Mosul, but Haditha [at the centre of Iraq’s water and energy supply grid] will be very hard to defend.
"They are very close to Baghdad airport. If they breached the perimeter, even with a symbolic attack, it would be enormous propaganda value for them.”
Iraq’s beleaguered military has been unable to muster a meaningful push-back against the jihadists and is under intense pressure to support the Yazidis with air strikes and food drops. A series of spectacular defeats has seriously eroded its credibility. Baghdad claimed on Wednesday that its military had carried out an air strike on a Mosul prison which killed scores of jihadists and freed an unknown number of prisoners. The area was impossible to access and the numbers of fatalities could not be verified. However, witnesses reported damage to the prison and relatives rushed to the gates in the hope of rescuing detained family members.
Kurdish Peshmurga troops, long regarded as a more formidable fighting force, had been defending Sinjar, but they too were forced to withdraw as Isis advanced. Kurdish officials say their forces were seriously outgunned by the jihadists, who were using heavy weapons looted from Iraqi bases.
The same weapons are being used to consolidate Isis’s hold on much of western Iraq. The group has significantly boosted its numbers by tapping into Iraq’s estranged Sunni population, which has been marginalised by the Shia majority government since the US overthrow of Saddam Hussein more than 11 years ago.
“I would say there are now between 30,000 and 50,000 of them,” Hashimi said. “Of those, I would say 30% are ideologues. The others have joined out of fear or coercion.”