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5 Years After The U.S. Tried To Protect Yazidis In Iraq, The Minority Still Suffers


Five years ago today, then-President Barack Obama made a speech from the White House to announce airstrikes. It was a key moment in the fight against ISIS. At the time, militants were tearing across Iraq and Syria.


BARACK OBAMA: Today, I authorized two operations in Iraq, targeted airstrikes to protect our American personnel and a humanitarian effort to help save thousands of Iraqi civilians who are trapped on a mountain without food and water and facing almost certain death.

SHAPIRO: Those Iraqi civilians were part of a small Yazidi religious minority fleeing genocide. Obama had pulled U.S. troops from Iraq a few years before, and now the U.S. was back in combat.

NPR's Jane Arraf has covered the rise and fall of ISIS over the last five years, and she joins us from Irbil in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

Hi, Jane.


SHAPIRO: So five years ago, ISIS took over one-third of Iraq and a huge swath of Syria. U.S.-backed forces captured the last piece of ISIS territory just earlier this year. What's the situation today?

ARRAF: So it's much calmer because ISIS no longer controls territory. Their caliphate is gone. And listening to the Obama announcement, he was talking about the U.S. consulate in Irbil, the city that I'm talking to you from. It's very calm here. It's basically recovered. But you know, five years ago, ISIS was about 30 miles from here. There was even fears in Baghdad, although Baghdad was never taken over by ISIS. But it's taken an incredible toll. That fight against ISIS here took most of three years, and it devastated the cities. It divided communities. And while ISIS no longer holds territory, it is actually still around and still a threat. And there are continuing threats to U.S. interests.

SHAPIRO: With ISIS no longer controlling territory and the Trump administration trying to draw down troops, is there still a role for U.S. forces over there?

ARRAF: Well, there apparently is because there are still between 4,000 and 5,000 U.S. forces in Iraq and more than 1,000 in Syria. They conduct airstrikes, but a lot of them are support staff. And there is a U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS here that includes 35 countries. So a lot of that focus is on training local security forces. And I saw some of that training yesterday near Irbil. It included Italian instructors training Kurdish fighters. And then I spoke with the deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition. He's a British general, Major General Christopher Ghika. And he talked about how the ISIS threat is much different now.

CHRISTOPHER GHIKA: At the start, they were a much larger physical force with equipment, but they were underpinned by an ideology and by a momentum created by taking over physical territory. And now the position has been turned really.

ARRAF: And it's turned because now there are obviously a lot fewer ISIS fighters in a very broad, wide area. But they're carrying out insurgent-style attacks. They're still a threat but one that Major General Ghika says Iraqi security forces are better able to handle. If you look at the latest report, though, from the Pentagon inspector general, that's more cautious. It says ISIS is solidifying its capabilities as an insurgency in Iraq and actually that it's resurging in Syria.

SHAPIRO: And how are the Yazidis doing, this religious minority group that was targeted for genocide?

ARRAF: Yeah, they are still suffering. You know, ISIS - the effect of ISIS in this region was kind of like throwing a grenade. It fragmented communities. It fragmented entire ethnic and religious groups. And the Yazidis were the hardest hit. This was a genocide launched specifically against Yazidis by ISIS. More than a thousand were killed in the massacres near Sinjar Mountain. Six thousand of them were enslaved, many of them used as sex slaves. And there are still almost 2,000 missing. And very little has been done to help them. It's a multi-layered trauma. I mean, imagine people who had relatives killed, who had them enslaved, and then they come back and their homes are destroyed. And most of them are still actually in camps for displaced people here in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. It requires years and years of recovery, perhaps a generation.

SHAPIRO: Just last month, President Trump met with Nadia Murad, the Yazidi woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize. But he didn't seem to know her story. This is a moment from that meeting.


NADIA MURAD: All this happened to me. They killed my mom, my six brothers. They left behind them...

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Where are they now?

MURAD: They killed them. They are in the mass graves in Sinjar.

SHAPIRO: Jane, how did that go over in Iraq?

ARRAF: Well, you know, Iraqis in general believe that the U.S. really doesn't care very much anymore. And I was actually watching that clip - re-watching it with Nadia Murad's sister, Adkee (ph), who lives in a camp for displaced Yazidis. And she said she was saddened because those were her relatives in mass graves that the president didn't know anything about. She was saddened that the U.S. didn't do more. And that's the case with a lot of people here.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Jane Arraf. Thanks, Jane.

ARRAF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.