RIZGARI, IRAQ - What stood out about a seminar recently held in this northern Iraqi village was that it was largely attended by men wearing noticeably large mustaches.
The facial hair is a feature distinguishing pious followers of the Kakai, a small religious group that has in recent years become a top target for the Islamic State (IS) terror group in Iraq.
The seminar, titled “Kakais in the time of Corona,” was meant to shed light on the culture and history of the group, as well as the challenges they face in the predominantly Muslim nation.
Followers of the religion say their unique mustache style, which they keep for both traditional and religious reasons, has in recent years meant certain death for their fellow men as IS used it to identify them.
The group, which believes in reincarnation, is estimated to have as many as 75,000 followers in Iraq.
“Al-Qaida and Islamic State terror have taken the lives of 450 members of our people since they came to the area,” Kwekha Aziz, a Kakai community leader, told VOA.
“You can see all our martyrs buried in the graveyard over there. … They hate our religion. They hate it that we don’t fast or we don’t pray like them," he added.
Most Kakais live in more than a dozen villages dotting oil-rich Kirkuk province, a part of the northern “disputed territories” where experts say the Iraqi government is struggling to contain a rising IS threat. That area is contested between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in the north.
Last year, a suspected IS attack left at least seven Kakai men dead near Iraq’s northern border with Iran.
Kurdish officials say increased IS attacks and activities in the region have in recent days caused many Kakais to abandon their villages.
“People in the area are panicking and many people in the predominantly Kakai villages have vacated their homes fearing [IS] attacks,” Hiwar Rashid, a local Kurdish official in Kirkuk, said Tuesday in an interview with Iraqi Kurdish news site Bas News.
Last week, Sarbast Lazgin, deputy minister of the KRG’s peshmerga forces in northern Iraq, told VOA the jihadists were already exploiting a “security vacuum” in the disputed territories, and he called for stronger cooperation between federal and regional security forces.
In 2015, the KRG created a military unit whose members were all Kakai followers to protect their own areas from IS. Local media reports say the unit has been severely weakened by partisan infighting between the dominant Kurdish parties.
Kakais also complain of lack of political representation in Iraq.
“We don’t have the size to be able to win parliamentary seats, and other political parties have not attempted to provide a quota for us, like they have done for other groups,” activist Ziyad Kakai said.
While it might be easier for IS to recognize Kakai men, the religion’s female followers say they face their own unique challenges that go beyond terror threats in the conservative society they live in.
“Kakai women have many grievances,” Samira Kakai, a women's rights activist, told VOA.
“They are not allowed [by their families] to go outside on their own. They are allowed to take pictures of themselves but cannot post them [online]. They are allowed to sing only in private,” she added.
Kakais are also known as Yarsanis. Most of them identify as being ethnically Kurdish and speak both the Sorani and Gorani dialects of the Kurdish language.