BAGHDAD: All 34 villages around Amerli are under the control of ISIS but the small Turkmen town is holding out, in one of the longest and most dramatic sieges of Iraq’s current conflict.
In the searing summer heat – without electricity or drinking water, and dwindling supplies of food and medicine – even a heroic defense appears unable to save the town’s 20,000 people.
“We’ve been under siege for almost two months, fighting terrorists who want to eradicate the real people of this district, the Shiite Turkmen,” said Abu Zahraa, a middle-aged laborer.
He took a wound to the leg in combat, and looked exhausted, but like most of Amerli’s fighters, he would not talk of suffering for fear of deflating the town’s morale.
Amerli’s volunteers, with the help of the local police force and some Shiite militiamen, Sunday repelled one of the fiercest attacks they had seen.
AFP footage showed uncollected bodies of ISIS gunmen strewn across the fields surrounding the town, around 160 kms north of Baghdad.
“They attacked in huge numbers but the courage of our fighters stopped them,” said city council member Abdullah Shukur Zain al-Abidin, lying on a bed with a keffiyeh wrapped around a neck wound.
Amerli was first attacked on June 10 and has been completely surrounded since eight days after that. Abidin said all he wanted was for the federal government to send them more weapons.
“Is nobody going to help them out of this death trap?” asked Ali al-Bayati, who heads a Turkmen rights group. “Amerli has brave men but the problem now is with the children, the women, the sick and elderly people. They need a humanitarian corridor,” he told AFP by phone.
Iraq’s Turkmen minority is one of the country’s largest and lives exclusively in the north. It is mostly Sunni Muslim but its Shiite component has been systematically targeted by jihadists over the past two months.
Bayati said the Iraqi air force could help secure a way out to Tuz Khurmatu, a large Turkmen town now under the control of Kurdish peshmerga forces just 25 kms to the north.
“We are drinking unclean water from the wells, residents are affected by diarrhea and our clinic has no drugs left,” complained Wahab Saleh, 40, an oil company employee with four children.
He said the food supplies army helicopters have been bringing were insufficient. “Livestock farmers have been slaughtering all their animals so the people have something to eat.”
According to several sources, only a handful of Amerli fighters have been killed since the start of the siege but dozens have serious injuries that require being transferred to a hospital.
The Kurds to the north have so far been unwilling to confront ISIS in Amerli.
To the south, the Iraqi army has seemed unable to press on from its positions on the Udhaim River.
Amerli has a force of around 400 trained Turkmen fighters, a few hundred more men who have been given weapons to defend their homes and volunteers from Shiite militia.
“Relief is tantalizingly close but it won’t take the final step,” said Michael Knights, an analyst with the Washington Institute.
“With 20,000 Shiite civilians surrounded by [ISIS], could the Iraqi army not even try to make a little push? This is real lethargy.”
Knights said there was a rare opportunity for consensus over the siege, a chance for many of the conflict’s players to overcome mutual distrust and, with U.S. backing, score a morale-boosting victory.
“You’re looking for the example effect. If you can give [ISIS] a black eye in this place, maybe they’ll want to do the same next door,” he said.
The military has had time to regroup since the initial offensive spearheaded by ISIS in June, receiving some equipment from its allies and support from Shiite militiamen – but Baghdad’s fightback remains sluggish.
Amerli had already been scarred by the violence that has plagued Iraq in recent years.
In 2007, around 160 people were killed when a huge suicide truck bomb ripped through the heart of town in what was then the deadliest such attack in Iraq’s history.
Turkey stepped in in order to help at the time, flying out the wounded for treatment.
But Bayati expressed little hope of a joint effort to rescue his community. “It is the story of the Turkmen in Iraq now; they are completely forgotten,” he said.