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 in 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, an insular religious sect. He was a Sunni Muslim. To Aswad’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 activist with the Iraqi Al-Amal Association a non-governmental group in Baghdad. “I think this story will be absolutely repeated again. I believe if security is not controlled, such stories will be very common.”
The case has far broader dimensions in Iraq, where anger arising from it points to the ethnic, religious and sectarian discord that colors virtually every issue here—even a girl’s killing.
That anger has been fueled by the release of the video images, made with a cell phone, that appeared on the Internet and that over the weekend was the focus of a CNN report.
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 Aswad’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.
UN: ‘Honor killings’ on rise
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 alone, according to the report, at least 40 women had been killed for alleged “immoral conduct,” which can range from sitting in a car with a man who is not a relative to adultery.
Unlike Aswad’s death, none was known to have caused revenge attacks.
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 gunned them down. 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 Aswad.
“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 past month followers of the sect had been warned by Arabs to leave the city. Yazidi college students have fled the university there 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 is 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 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 for this year on autonomy for some northern areas, including the city of Kirkuk and disputed lands bordering the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. Sunni Arabs oppose Kurdish autonomy and oppose holding the referendum.
“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 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.
Reprisal got more attention
Accounts of what happened to Aswad vary, but some things are clear. She had begun a relationship with a young Sunni Arab. In an effort to separate the two, and apparently to protect Aswad from an enraged uncle and cousins, her father took her to a Yazidi clergyman’s house in Bashiqa. Aswad remained there for a week until April 7, when the uncle and at least two male cousins abducted the girl.
A family member who did not want to be identified said Duaa Aswad’s father, Khaleel Aswad, tried to prevent the killing and had accused his brother, Saleem Aswad, of orchestrating it. Gen. Wathiq Hamdani of the local police said Saleem Aswad was one of several people being sought in connection with the stoning.
The story of the stoning still has received relatively little attention in Iraq. The news of the killing of the Yazidi men two weeks later in apparent retaliation for Duaa Aswad’s death drew more attention from the local media. Iraqi women say that’s a sign of the country’s obsession with the sectarian and political implications of violence at the expense of concern about women’s rights, and particularly a girl’s death.
“I am really sorry that we have turned to processing issues this way,” said Ghasan Alyas, a Yazidi teacher living in Bashiqa.
“Some say that external forces are behind what happened,” she said, referring to the accusations of Arab meddling. “But I think this is an illusion. The thought of a third party invisibly involved in whatever is happening is just a way of excusing ourselves and our ignorant culture from its responsibilities.
Comment: If you can stomach it, video of the murder — recorded on a mobile phone — has been posted online by the Assyrian International News Agency