WASHINGTON — The next time you hear confident assurances from the White House and its supporters that the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq is working and that something called “victory” is now within sight, remember the Yazidis.

The who? Before Tuesday, you almost certainly would have asked that question — before two villages in northern Iraq, populated by an obscure religious sect, suffered what is now officially the deadliest terrorist attack of the war, with more than 400 people confirmed dead. The final toll is expected to rise, but the coordinated suicide truck bombings in the Yazidi towns already constitute the second-worst terrorist attack of modern times, trailing only the carnage of Sept. 11, 2001.

Thanks to online encyclopedias, veteran foreign correspondents and the work of dedicated scholars, we now have a boilerplate definition. The Yazidis are ethnic Kurds who practice an ancient, pre-Islamic religion. Among their beliefs is that God created seven archangels, one of whom is sometimes called Shaytan, which is the name given to Satan in the Koran. This has led some Muslims to believe, incorrectly, that the Yazidis are devil-worshipers.

We also now know that in April, a Yazidi woman who had married a Muslim and converted to Islam was stoned to death by irate members of her community. This horror was captured on video and disseminated widely; angry Muslims gunned down 23 Yazidis in reprisal.

We can state these facts with confidence. But the truth is that we have only the most superficial idea of who the Yazidis are — and even less of a clue about who might have visited such utter devastation on their villages.

It was al-Qaeda, U.S. military officers quickly announced. And maybe it was. Maybe it was part of an al-Qaeda effort to create chaos in an area near the Kurdish-controlled provinces that are often held up as the great success story of the U.S. invasion — an oasis of relative peace and tranquility, if you discount the occasional stoning or retaliatory massacre.

But the White House and the U.S. military leadership in Iraq generally blame al-Qaeda for trying to foment sectarian and ethnic violence by driving wedges between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. In that context, the Yazidi sect is so tiny as to be inconsequential — hardly worth al-Qaeda’s time and effort.

The bombings Tuesday looked more like an act of genocide, an attempt to erase as many Yazidis as possible from the face of the Earth. The motive for this atrocity might not have been political but religious; it might have been the work of Muslim fundamentalists who were trying to settle a centuries-old local grievance, rather than the work of Muslim fundamentalists trying to drive the Americans out of Iraq or establish a new caliphate in the Middle East.

The point is that here in Washington, we talk about Iraq as if we were intimately familiar with all its fractures, fissures and fault lines. The Bush administration touts as a breakthrough the recent decision of provincial Sunni Muslim sheiks to cooperate with U.S. forces — but it’s also possible that the sheiks are just maneuvering to be in a better position when the Americans eventually leave. The administration says there might be genocide if the United States pulls out — but it looks as if genocide has already been attempted.

Some war critics confidently predict that if the United States were to withdraw its troops, the al-Qaeda presence in Iraq would quickly become a non-factor — that foreign-born terrorists, having outlived their usefulness to the Sunni community, would be driven out or otherwise neutralized.

I happen to think this is a reasonable hypothesis. But I’m anything but confident.

There are those who will see Tuesday’s awful bombings as an illustration of why U.S. forces should stay in Iraq. I see the carnage as an illustration of how little the presence of 162,000 American troops can accomplish in a country the size of Iraq.

I don’t think anyone knows with certainty where “al-Qaeda in Iraq” ends and “the Sunni insurgency” begins. I don’t think anyone knows with certainty how the various Shiite factions will ultimately line up — or even whether a unitary Iraq, having been shattered by the U.S. invasion, can ever be reassembled.

What I do know is that anyone who says American forces have to stay in Iraq because they’re protecting the Iraqi people should tell that to the Yazidis. Those who are left.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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