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Trump travel ban leaves Iraq's persecuted Yazidis in limbo

By Isabel Coles

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - KhudeedaNaif won refuge in the United States as a member of Iraq's Yazidi minority, but what he fears more than religious persecution is retribution for his brother's work as an interpreter for the U.S. army in Iraq.

Naif is one of the many affected by the U.S. President Donald Trump's decision on Friday to temporarily ban the entry of refugees and others from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Naif was scheduled to leave Iraq this week with his wife and two children when the International Organization for Migration (IOM) told him the trip was off until further notice.

The 35-year-old electrical technician will remain instead at a refugee camp in Dohuk, northern Iraq, where he has lived since Islamic State militants overran the Sinjar area in the summer of 2014, purging its Yazidi inhabitants.

The insurgents systematically killed, captured and enslaved thousands of Yazidis, whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions and are regarded by Islamic State as devil-worshippers.

A U.N.-appointed commission of independent war crimes investigators said last year the crimes against the Yazidis amounted to a genocide.

Naif fled across the border to Syria on foot with his immediate family and thousands of other Yazidis before returning to Dohuk.

But the family was afraid for their lives even before the Islamic State started its attacks.

"People came here (to the camp) because there was a threat to the Yazidis in general, but for the people who worked for the Americans we had to be cautious even when we were home," he said, contacted on the phone from the Kurdish capital Erbil.

Trump's executive order bars the admission of people from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen.

The order said "religious minorities facing persecution in their countries" would be given priority when refugee admissions resume.

More than one hundred Yazidis are waiting for their IOM asylum applications to be processed, Saib Khidr, a prominent Yazidi lawyer and human rights activist close to the Baba Sheikh, the top religious leader of the community.

A Yazidi woman was denied boarding a flight to the United States on Sunday, he said.

Khidr said he had hoped Yazidis would be among those given priority but was concerned that Trump only mentioned the persecution of Syrian Christians when asked about the issue in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.

"We're disappointed," he told Reuters in Baghdad. "We're waiting for the American side to clarify its position."

Germany, Canada and the United States are usually the top desired destinations for Iraq's Yazidis, Khidr said.

Naif said his brother was killed in a suicide bombing along with two Americans in 2008 when U.S. forces occupied the country from 2003 to 2011.

Although Iraqis working for the Americans use a pseudonym, his brother's identity -- and by extension that of his family -- was revealed when he was killed.

"Eventually, we are going to get killed," Naif said.

Naif's family obtained a refugee visa to join his four sisters, brother and mother in the United States after six months of interviews and medical tests.

Interpreters and translators who worked for the U.S. military and American state agencies in Iraq are eligible to apply to a Special Immigration Visa (SIV).

U.S. consular services are currently processing "fewer than 500" application under the SIV program, said a State Department official. Overall, "more than 20,000 Iraqis have received immigrations benefits" from this program, the official said.

"We hope that he (Trump) changes his mind and at least takes the people who worked with them (the Americans)," Naif said.

"We protected them," he said. "We never expected this."

(Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Baghdad; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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