Iraq's fearful Yazidis cancel festival

Arbil, Iraq - Iraq's Yazidi sect, targeted in August in the deadliest single attack since the 2003 US-led invasion, said on Monday it had drastically scaled back its most important annual celebrations out of fear.

"We decided to cancel the celebrations this year as a result of bad security after the Sinjar catastrophe," Karim Sulaiman, a member of the pre-Islamic sect's supreme spiritual council, told AFP.

Sulaiman was referring to the attack on August 14 when four lorries packed with explosives were detonated in two northern villages targeting the ancient Yazidi community.

More than 400 people were killed in the bombings, the deadliest attack in the world since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

From October 6, for seven days, the Yazidis had been due to celebrate their most important ritual, which normally includes visits to temples where oxen are slain and major celebrations.

Sulaiman said that most celebrations were cancelled this year but worshippers could still make the six-day annual pilgrimage to the tomb of their founder, Sheikh Adi bin Mustafa, in Lalish, north of the Iraqi city of Mosul.

"The festivity will be simple this year. We will only receive during the six days festival worshippers at Lalish temple," he said.

Yazidis believe in God the creator and respect the Biblical and Koranic prophets, especially Abraham, but the main focus of worship is Malak Taus, the chief of the archangels, often represented by a peacock.

In Iraq, the community is caught between the intolerance of Sunni Arab extremists, who want to drive them off their land, and the ambition of the Kurdish regional government, which wants to co-opt their votes.

"I wonder why the religious authorities and the government fail to take the neccessary measures to secure our fesitivities, they are important to us," asked worshipper Ido Khalaf, 53.

Yazidis, who speak a dialect of Kurdish and live mainly in the mountains of northern Iraq, have tried to remain aloof from the vicious sectarian and political conflicts gripping much of the rest of the country.

But in recent months relations with nearby Sunni Muslim communities have dramatically deteriorated as militants in northern towns like Sinjar, Mosul and Tall Afar have tried to force the Yazidis out.

On April 7, a mob of Yazidi men stoned to death a 17-year-old girl from their own community who had offended conservative local values by running away to marry a young Muslim man.

The savage murder was captured on cellphone videos and widely distributed, and Sunni extremists were quick to stage what they described as revenge attacks, but which looked like the insurgent killings elsewhere in Iraq.