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Fallout from stoning embodies Iraq's discord

May 21, 2007|Tina Susman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The video is shaky, but the brutality is clear.

A slender, black-haired girl is dragged in a headlock through a braying mob of men. Within seconds, she is on the ground in a fetal position, covering her head with her arms in a futile attempt to fend off a shower of stones.

Someone slams a concrete block onto the back of her head. A river of blood oozes from beneath her long, tangled hair. The girl stops moving, but the kicks and the rocks keep coming, as do the victorious shouts of the men delivering them.

In the eyes of many in her community in northern Iraq, 17-year-old Duaa Khalil Aswad's crime was to love a boy from another religion. She was a Yazidi, a member of an insular religious sect. He was a Sunni Muslim. To Duaa's uncle and cousins, that was reason enough to put her to death last month in the village of Bashiqa.

Women's groups say the video shows Iraq's backward slide as religious and ethnic intolerance takes hold.

"There is a new Taliban controlling the lives of women in Iraq," said Hanaa Edwar, a women's rights activist. "I think this story will be absolutely repeated again. I believe if security is not controlled, such stories will be very common."

But the case has far broader dimensions in Iraq, where anger arising from it points to the ethnic and religious discord that colors virtually every issue here -- even the slaying of a teenage girl.

That anger has been fueled by the video images, made with someone's cellphone, that appeared on the Internet and that over the weekend were the focus of a report on CNN.

Kurds, who include Yazidis, suspect Sunni Arabs of circulating the gruesome images to fuel anger against Yazidis and undermine the Kurdish community, which exercises a degree of autonomy in northern Iraq and is seeking more.

"It seems they are trying to make it big for political purposes," said Mohsen Gargari, a Kurdish member of parliament.

In an interview, he and two other Kurdish lawmakers condemned Duaa's killing. But they noted that in February a Sunni woman had been killed by relatives for having a relationship with a Yazidi man. "Nobody talked about it. Nobody filmed it or turned it into a big issue," he said.

In a report released last month, the United Nations said so-called honor killings of women were on the rise in Iraq. In January and February, according to the report, at least 40 women had been killed for alleged "immoral conduct," such as sitting in a car with a man who is not a relative or having an adulterous relationship.

Unlike Duaa's death, none was known to have caused revenge attacks, much less political sniping.

Two weeks after the April 7 stoning, gunmen dragged more than 20 Yazidi men off a bus in the northern city of Mosul, about 20 miles south of Bashiqa, lined them up against a wall and executed them. The next day, a Sunni insurgent group linked to Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for a car bombing that targeted the offices of a Kurdish political party in northern Iraq, saying it was to avenge the death of Duaa.

"We are expecting more violence, but we already have paid the price," said Mahama Shangali, a Yazidi member of parliament.

Shangali said three of his cousins had been killed recently in Mosul, home to a large Yazidi community. Edan Ashaik, a Yazidi living in Mosul, said that in the last month followers of the sect had been warned by Arabs to leave the city. Yazidi college students have fled the university in Mosul for fear of being attacked.

"I have to repeat my courses next year or go in disguise to take the exams," said Amal Jibor, a 23-year-old would-be university graduate who said she and her family had left Mosul and were living with relatives in a cramped house in Bashiqa. Jibor said most Yazidis opposed the stoning death, but she echoed the politicians' view that the case was being exploited.

"It was an ordinary problem, but it was made use of and was fabricated into a political cause," Jibor said.

Shangali and many other Yazidis, as well as non-Yazidi Kurds, are convinced that the circulation of the video is part of a plot to drive a wedge in the Kurdish community of northern Iraq. They say this would hamper the ability of Kurds to pass a referendum planned this year on autonomy for some northern areas, including the city of Kirkuk.

Sunni Arabs oppose Kurdish autonomy and oppose holding the referendum, whose date remains in question.

"In order to prevent this from happening, they have used this to unite opposition to the Yazidis," Shangali said. Asked who "they" are, Shangali cited hard-line supporters of late former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab whose campaign to "Arabize" much of northern Iraq led to displacement of hundreds of thousands of Kurds.

Gargari and Adil Barwari, another Kurdish lawmaker, agreed.

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