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MSU Professor Gives a Primer on ISIS, Yezidis and America's Options in Iraq

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Americans are hearing this week horror stories of the radical militant group ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Shams, and its brutal takeover of several Iraqi cities. ISIS fighters have reportedly beheaded religious minorities who refused to convert to Islam. Much of that battle is blazing in the Kurdish region of Iraq, in the north, which is home to many minority groups.   KSMU’s Jennifer Davidson spoke with an expert on that region who feels the United States should send heavy arms directly to the Kurds, who are America’s allies.

David Romano is the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and author of The Kurdish Nationalist Movement. He’s broken bread with the Christian elders in a Kurdish town that has recently been taken over by ISIS.  Romano began by giving me some background into the Yezidi religion and ethnic group; that’s one minority that has been brutally targeted by ISIS.

We're talking about a very real, immediate threat that an entire, ethno-national religious group is wiped off the face of the earth.
Dr. David Romano

“Their religion predates Islam and Christianity,” Romano said. “They believe in reincarnation, trans-migration of souls. The Yezidis also only marry amongst themselves, and it’s forbidden for them to marry outside of their group or to convert others,” Romano said.

There are only about 400,000 Yezidis in Iraq, he said, 200,000 of whom lived in a town that ISIS overran last week.

“We’re talking about a very real, immediate threat that an entire, ethno-national religious group is wiped off the face of the earth. And we’ve already seen what’s happened to the Christians of Mosul:  they’ve been there about 1,800 years, since long before Iraq existed, and since long before Islam came onto the scene. And there’s none left in Mosul,” Romano said.

Romano feels the United States has both a moral and a strategic imperative to stop ISIS.

“The Kurds aren’t asking for us to send boots on the ground again. There seems to be this false notion that it’s either don’t do anything, or this very, very limited airstrikes and supplies that the Obama administration announced it was sending on Friday, or send troops. [Those aren’t] at all the only options,” he said.

The option he supports is to heavily arm the Kurdish peshmerga so they can better fight against ISIS, who have taken the American military equipment out of the hands of the Iraqi Army. Romano also is recommending a more intense air strike campaign.

The Kurds are asking for that military support now, Romano said, and as America’s allies, they have a solid track record of using that equipment in a way that’s consistent with America’s interests.

“[ISIS is] much, much more dangerous than Al-Qaida,” Romano said.  The Taliban has recently said that ISIS needs to “tone it down,” and Al-Qaida disowned it, partly because its tactics were so brutal.

ISIS, now referred to as the Islamic State, has a “brand name” that is spreading like wildfire through Iraq and Syria, and has offshoots in Jordan, Lebanon and Gaza, Romano said.

“The Islamic State is a regular army now, practically, with a territory, with an organization, with way more people,” Romano said.

“And they said months ago that we were their targets,” Romano said.  “Attacking them is in the core American interests.”

Romano says the bigger question is: how did ISIS go from their “true believer” small core of recruits to expanding throughout Syria and Iraq?  

“And the answer there is there haven’t been better alternatives for the Sunni Arab population that’s been repressed by a central government. And the Iraqi case is important,” Romano said.

After American troops withdrew in 2011, President Obama treated Iraq like "business as usual" with the Al-Malaki government, even when Al-Malaki started abusing his power in regard to the Sunnis:  he stopped paying Sunni soldiers, started attacking them and arrested their leaders.

“And we didn’t do anything in any real sense of the term. We voiced ‘concern,’” Romano said.

“The result is not too hard to predict. The Sunni Arab population turned to anywhere they could in order to fight back against him.”