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Honor Killings Fuel Tensions in Iraq's Kurdish North

In Iraq's northern Kurdistan region, government officials are trying to understand and stop a rise in honor killings. The Kurdish government has overturned Iraqi laws that allowed relatives to kill women who were perceived to have dishonored their families, but officials say women are still dying nearly every day. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Irbil that, in recent weeks, a widely distributed video of one brutal killing has fueled more deaths and inflamed sectarian tensions.

In the grainy video, a dozen men surround a woman curled into a fetal position on the ground, and they kick and punch her. Hundreds of onlookers fill the village square in Bashika, just outside Iraq's northern city Mosul.

The beating continues as Do'a Khalil, 17, tries to protect her head from the blows. After several minutes, a cinderblock is passed through the crowd and a man uses it to smash her head.

Khalil's death brings cheers from the crowd.

Do'a Khalil belonged to the Yazidis, a religious minority concentrated in northern Iraq with a strict caste system governing marriage. She was in love with a Muslim boy. Members of her family disapproved.

The video of her murder on April 7 quickly spread from cell phone to cell phone across Kurdistan, dominating news coverage and stoking tensions between Yazidis and Muslims.

Ido Babasheikh, an advisor on Yazidi affairs for Iraq's President Jalal Talabani, showed VOA printouts from Islamist Web sites urging attacks against Yazidis.

"The fundamentalists, the Muslimists, they have taken this argument to kill the Yazidians," he said. "They have written many articles and they said they must kill the Yazidians because they killed a girl, this girl who wanted to change her religion."

Kurdish officials insist that the girl did not want to convert to Islam and that her family was merely upset because she wanted to marry outside her religion.

But days after her death, 23 Yazidi laborers traveling together were shot dead in Mosul. An Islamic militant group claimed responsibility and vowed to kill more Yazidis to avenge her death.

Do'a Khalil's public honor killing was unusual because hundreds of people witnessed it and the video has been seen by thousands. But honor killings are common in Kurdistan, where tribal, cultural and religious traditions have long condoned the practice.

Yousif Aziz is the minister of human rights in the Kurdistan regional government.

"I think it takes place daily, some are killed, some burn themselves, so there are many cases," said Aziz.

Accurate figures on the number of women killed are difficult to obtain because many deaths occur at home and go unreported.

Some women are distraught over dishonoring their families and set themselves on fire using fuel. Their deaths are frequently ruled an accident. Officials say hundreds of women are dying each year, and the limited figures available show deaths are increasing.

In the latest United Nations human-rights report on Iraq, U.N. officials urged the Kurdistan government to do more to address the problem.

Chilura Hardi, who runs a center for women's issues in Irbil, says that as the cell phone video of Do'a Khalil's killing spread, the number of honor killings increased.

"Since the seventh of April, so many women have been killed. So many women, it has just been packed, packed with killing women," she said. "Because it just made it okay. When people saw that, people who have got this idea about killing a woman for whatever the reason: whether she did not listen to you, did not obey your orders, did not want to get married to so and so. Well then, if that happens then I can do the same thing."

She says she believes the government is sincere in its effort to solve the problem. Kurdish officials have enacted laws that punish the practice and they are starting a community education program they say reduced the number of honor killings in Pakistan.

But the killing of Do'a Khalil has brought renewed attention to the issue. Last week, nearly a month after Khalil was killed, the Kurdish government released a statement condemning her murder and urging calm. Hardi says women's groups have been alarmed by her death.

"We have been working on the killings for a long time. All of us, all of the women's organizations. We have been writing articles in the papers, on magazines. It just does not seem to get somewhere. Now when this happened I think it woke us all up and said, 'Look, if you do not do something, this is going to continue and it is going to get worse," added Hardi.

In recent weeks, Kurdish officials have also focused on reducing religious tensions sparked by Khalil's death.

Human Rights Minister Yousif Aziz says officials worry that Islamic militant groups are using her honor killing to ignite the kind of sectarian violence that plagues the rest of Iraq.

"These are one of the weak habits of the Kurdish community, and we have to take care about these weak points," said Aziz. "We should not allow our enemy to take advantage of these weak points and to make many problems for us."

Do'a Khalil has been buried in a Yazidi graveyard in a village north of Mosul, but the struggle over the legacy of her death continues.