On the road to Mosul, Kurds — with an eye toward Trump — protect Christian minorities

Yahoo News

Batnay, Iraq — Among the Kurds of northern Iraq, the news of Donald Trump’s election win has stirred hope and eager speculation about the role of the Kurdish people and the military, particularly in the fight against the Islamic State.

But the Kurds, a majority Muslim ethnic group, are also wondering whether Trump’s on-again, off-again ban on Muslim immigration would apply to them.

Kurds have not been implicated in the recent series of terror attacks against the West and have been allied with the U.S. against ISIS. In areas of northern Iraq recently liberated from the Islamic State, Kurdish commanders are eager to demonstrate how they are protecting Christians under their control.

Trump has called for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States, a position he has appeared to modify at times, but which still appears on his website. During his campaign, he expressed support for the Kurds, saying they “have proven to be the most loyal to us.” It’s unclear whether his support would extend to the Kurds’ long-standing goal of an independent Kurdistan. American leaders have traditionally been reluctant to risk offending Turkey, an important ally, which is strongly opposed to a Kurdish state.

The Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, have pushed ISIS militias out of villages and districts north and east of Mosul’s center.

Yahoo News visited peshmerga forces on the ground at Batnay, a Christian village just 16 miles north of Mosul, to report on their reaction to the U.S. elections, and to learn why many of them, as Muslim fighters, were working to help liberate Christian villages.

The peshmerga took Yahoo News to the central church inside the village. They had pushed out ISIS in October, just days after the Mosul offensive began.

A Christian Peshmerga fighter stands in the desecrated church of Batnay in Northern Iraq. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)
A Christian peshmerga fighter stands in a desecrated church in Batnay in Northern Iraq. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

Peshmerga fighters carefully stepped along a pathway in the rubble, still littered with improvised explosive devices and other potential dangers, to reach the church.

ISIS had occupied the town for nearly two and half years, using the bell tower as a lookout.

They used the church relics for target practice, and bullet holes were scattered across the walls and columns. A statue of Jesus was broken into pieces on the church’s altar. The pews were destroyed, and ISIS fighters sprayed graffiti messages along the walls, denouncing Christianity.

Peshmerga Col. Zeravan Baroshki, who escorted Yahoo News, said, “Before the election, [Trump] said he will support the Kurds, but when he takes charge, we don’t know what he will do. I see he is with the Republican [Party], and Republicans usually solve conflicts very fast.”

But when it comes to discrimination on the basis of religion, Baroshki feels strongly that the Kurds can be an example of unity. “[Members of ISIS] are not really Muslims,” he says. “They only wear the dress of Islam. We are helping and healing [the Christians], and we are ready to be martyred for them. They are our sisters, our brothers, our soul mates.”

Rawand, a Christian peshmerga fighter, told Yahoo News many of his family members fled Iraq. He is from another small village near Batnay. “This is our land,” he said, “and when it is safe, [my family] will come back.”

Many Christians have felt betrayed by their Muslim neighbors, but peshmerga forces are hoping to help repair that. After they liberated Batnay, they raised a cross back atop the Church’s tower, along with a Kurdish flag to symbolize they were in control.

Jesus' feet from a statue that once hung on the wall of the Batnay church, shot down by ISIS. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)
Jesus’ feet from a statue that was shot down in the Batnay church by the Islamic State. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

Back in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, politicians used the election results as an opportunity to tweet out their congratulations for the president-elect and to ask for increased support for the peshmerga and the Kurdish region.

Yahoo News met with the spokesperson for the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Safeen Dizayee, who is hopeful President-elect Trump will continue to provide assistance to their government and to their peshmerga fighters. “Our expectation is to develop our friendly relations with the United States, and we do see that the president-elect has shown interest in this region,” Dizayee said.

Dizayee was referring to comments Trump made to the New York Times in July, in which he said he was a “big fan of the Kurdish forces” in the fight against ISIS.

When asked about Trump’s proposed ban on Muslims entering the U.S., or a potential registry for Muslim immigrants, which could include Kurds, Dizayee said he is confident the U.S. ”will pursue a policy that will be in conjunction with the reality,” he said. “The U.S. cannot isolate itself from the real world. You have to deal with the issues as they are.”

He believes the Trump administration will implement policies, including a foreign policy, that will reflect the diversity of the U.S. “If you look at the composition of the United States,” Dizayee said, “it actually reflects that reality — the composition of the U.S. is from various ethnic groups, religious groups, and sects, and beliefs, so that’s what makes the United States — great.”

President-elect Donald Trump gives the thumbs up as he arrives at the Trump National Golf Club Bedminster clubhouse on Nov. 20, 2016 in Bedminster, N.J.. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
President-elect Donald Trump arrives at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. on Nov. 20. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Michael Knights, an expert on the region at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told Yahoo News that religion is not “a disqualifier for relations between the Trump government and the KRG.” He said many of the Republicans who claim “Islamophobia is not a phobia” or that a fear of Muslims is “rational,” are also “at the same time very pro-Kurdish, because they see the Kurds as being the dependable ally. They’re the new Israel in a way,” a people attempting to stand apart from the conflicts among their neighbors in Turkey, Syria and the rest of Iraq, which is predominantly Arab.

Knights also said the Kurds aren’t interested in ruling their region with political Islam, which makes them more attractive to Republican supporters. “When you look at the leadership of Iraqi Kurdistan, these are not strong Islamists,” he said.

A number of the KRG officials are hoping the Trump administration will support its bid for independence from the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

The head of foreign relations for the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), Hemin Hawrami, explained to Yahoo News, “The question strategically is how the United States looks at Kurdistan: Are we partners and allies, strategic allies or not? We have proved that [we are] in many cases.”

He said he believes the Kurds have been a “stabilizing force” in the region, particularly against ISIS.

But Knights believes the Kurds may have to offer the U.S. something “compelling” that looks “like a great way to kill more of ISIS,” such as “intelligence cooperation, bases. For this administration, maybe that’s what [the KRG] becomes — the new Guantánamo.”

The KRG spokesperson, Dizayee, said the Kurds should not be “denied the opportunity” to gain independence, and that “every human is born to be free.”

Peshmerga put the cross back up on the Batnay church when the liberated it in October. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)
Peshmerga fighters placed a cross atop the church tower after they liberated Batnay in October. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

Kurds also are hoping to gain more support for the peshmerga. Currently, under U.S. policy, the peshmerga are receiving training, weaponry, vehicles and other equipment. They are also receiving salary stipends for their soldiers as part of a $415 million package announced by U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in April.

But peshmerga spokesperson Jabar Yawar told Yahoo News the U.S. is “providing the salary for 36,000 persons, but we have 160,000 peshmerga forces. It’s not even half.”

Yawar said the KRG is facing an economic crisis. He said low oil prices and conflicts with the Iraqi government in Baghdad were also to blame for the shortfalls in pay for many peshmerga.

Knights said the main concern for the Kurdish would actually be that the Trump administration forgets about them. “[The Kurds] just don’t register on the radar of [the Trump administration]. They will have a very packed domestic agenda, terrifyingly, and that will take up a huge amount of time.”

So while KRG politicians lobby for Trump’s attention, the peshmerga are fighting ISIS on the road to Mosul.

And as they fight to protect their land, and their Christian neighbors who they call brothers, they are also hoping the U.S. will ultimately support them in their long-standing fight for an independent Kurdish state.

Christian peshmerga fighter holds open a Bible in the desecrated church of Batnay, Iraq. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)
Christian peshmerga fighter holds open a Bible in the desecrated church of Batnay, Iraq. (Photo: Ash Gallagher for Yahoo News)

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Ash Gallagher is a multimedia journalist covering the Mideast for Yahoo News.