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?

Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

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."

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