BARCELONA, Spain – In the end it was the plight of tens of thousands of Kurdish Yezidis, fleeing Islamic State (IS/ISIS) armies in Iraq and dying in their dozens of hunger and thirst on an arid mountain, that galvanized the international support behind the Peshmerga forces.
US President Barack Obama said on Thursday that the United States "could not turn a blind eye" to the IS committing likely “genocide” against the Yezidis.
Only a few hours later, US jets began military strikes against IS positions in Iraq’s northern Nineveh province, home to centuries-old Yezidi and Christian communities, allowing the Peshmerga to open a safe corridor to the Kurdistan Region, where thousands have already arrived.
European heavyweights France, Britain and Germany on Friday rallied in support of US air strikes against IS, all three pledging to aid the Yezidis.
Earlier this week, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani vowed to defend “our Yezidi brothers and sisters.”
But who are the Yezidis, whose plight has united major Western powers against IS brutalities?
The followers of this gentle community of ethnic Kurds, whose religious beliefs are traced to antiquity and the ancient Zoroastrian and Hindu religions as well as to Christianity and Islam, was even persecuted in Iraq by Saddam Hussein.
But never like it is now.
Early this week Vian Dakhil, a Yezidi in the Iraqi parliament, screamed before fellow lawmakers that the world must help because her people were dying in their dozens on Mount Shingal, where they had fled to escape being imprisoned or killed by the militants.
“We want humanitarian solidarity! Save us, save us!” she pleaded.
Her plea did not go unheard.
“Earlier this week, one Iraqi in the area cried to the world, 'There is no one coming to help,’” Obama said in a speech Thursday. “Well, today America is coming to help,” he said, authorizing airstrikes.
Until now, there are no accurate numbers of how many were on the mountain, and how many died. Estimates for the number on the mountain range from 50,000 to 100,000, with reports that some 70 had died of starvation and thirst and that bodies were seen from the air scattered among the rocks.
They had been hiding in the rocks since the town of Shingal fell to the militants more than a week ago.
There are reports that in Shingal the militants had taken 500 Yezidi women as war booty, and had posted pictures of dead Yezidis on the Internet.
Local Kurdish officials had said that 10,000 had been rescued Friday.
Iraqi human rights minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani was reported as saying that the militants had killed hundreds of Yezidis, burying some alive and taking women as slaves. There was no independent confirmation of his claims.
IS fighters, who have already driven out Christians from their ancestral homes in northern Iraq – including Zumar -- have been especially targeting the Yezidis, whom they regard as “devil worshipers” for their religious beliefs.
The Yezidis, who follow one of the oldest religions in the world, believe in one God and seven deities, the most important of them Melek Taus, or "the Peacock Angel."
Their practices, such as the baptism of infants and the Eucharistic ceremony of breaking bread and drinking wine which are performed by Yezidis sheiks, are believed to be taken from Christianity. In addition, male children are circumcised, such as in Judaism and Islam.
Their reverence of fire as a divine manifestation and practice of not accepting converts is believed to come from Zoroastrian influence. They also have a caste system and believe in reincarnation, as do the Hindus.
Yezidis also have their own beliefs about the origins of the world.
They believe that Melek Taus, assuming the form of a peacock, descended to earth to endow it with beauty and abundance. In the Garden of Eden he met Adam, giving him a soul and teaching him to worship regularly. Yezidis consider themselves descendants of Adam, but not Eve.
In the eleventh century Yezidi culture was reformed by the great Sufi, Sheikh Adi, who oversaw the final modifications that shaped the faith as it is today, according to the Yezidi Truth Organization.
Yezidis believe it was under the unseen guidance of Melek Taus that Sheikh Adi composed a scripture, taught hymns and prayers and established the current Yezidi caste system.
The sheikh was entombed in Lalish, believed to be the ancient spot where the Peacock Angel first landed, making it the spiritual heartland of the Yezidis.
Yezidis have been brutally persecuted through centuries and falsely accused of worshiping the devil. That is because Yezidi traditions teach that Melek Taus was a fallen angel, but received the forgiveness of God and was returned to Heaven. In Judaism Christianity and Islam, the fallen angel is never redeemed and is despised.
Yezidis also suffered greatly under the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when they were repeatedly massacred.
Under Saddam's rule many Yezidi villages were wiped out as troops moved in on Iraq's Kurdistan Region. In 2007, during the height of Iraq’s sectarian bloodletting, hundreds of Yezidis were killed in car bombings in northern Iraq.
Yezidis number some 700,000 worldwide, with some 500,000 in mainly northern Iraq where IS has been capturing their towns. The rest of the community has been scattered in Armenia, Georgia, Syria and Europe, particularly in Germany.
Yezidis have mostly inhabited Nineveh province, and are some of the oldest inhabitants of Iraq, believed to descend from the Sumerian, Babylonian and Assyrian civilizations.