Iraqi town holds out against militant onslaught
BAGHDAD — As Islamic militants rampage across northern Iraq, seizing vast swaths of territory and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, the Shiite Turkmens living in the hardscrabble town of Amirli have decided to stay and fight.
The wheat and barley farmers have taken up arms, dug trenches and posted gunmen on the rooftops — and, against all odds, they have kept the Islamic State extremist group out of their town of 15,000 people. But residents say they are running low on food and water despite Iraqi army airlifts, and after more than six weeks under siege they don’t know how much longer they can hold out.
“We are using all of our efforts, all of our strength to protect our city and protect our homes,” Nihad al-Bayati, an oil engineer now fighting on the outskirts of the town, told The Associated Press by phone. “There is no other solution. If we have to die, so be it.”
Every three days he makes his way into the town to see his family. He travels on back roads, hoping to avoid shelling and snipers, and keeps an eye out for checkpoints manned by Islamic State militants who would surely kill him.
In Amirli, his extended family — 17 women and children — share a single room. They have no electricity, and food and water are extremely scarce. During the day temperatures soar well above 110 degrees, and on some nights shells rain down on the town, forcing the family to huddle indoors in the darkness and stifling heat.
The Obama administration, which has carried out airstrikes and aid flights to protect the Kurdish autonomous region and religious minorities elsewhere in northern Iraq, is weighing an aid operation for Amirli, according to U.S. defense officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal deliberations.
Residents say militants with the Islamic State group first attacked the town in late June. When the townsmen fought them off, the militants retaliated by blowing up the main power station to the north, according to Ali al-Bayati, head of the Turkmen Saving Foundation, a local NGO. The insurgents also destroyed several water wells on the outskirts of town, he said.
A few of the men on the front lines have access to power generators for one to two hours a day and are able to charge their phones, allowing them to maintain contact with the outside world.
Amirli, located 105 miles north of Baghdad, has been completely surrounded by the insurgents since mid-July. The Iraqi military has been flying in food, medicine and weapons, but residents say the aid isn’t enough, and that many are falling victim to disease and heat stroke in the relentless August heat.
“The food we are getting only meets 5 percent of our need,” said Qassim Jawad Hussein, a father of five living in Amirli who also spoke to the AP by phone. He said two Iraqi military helicopters landed Tuesday with 240 boxes of beans, rice, lentils, sugar, tomato paste and cooking oil. The helicopters have also evacuated the sick and wounded, but only have room for those in most desperate need of care.
They face a far worse fate if the town falls. The Islamic State group, which has carved out a vast, self-styled caliphate straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border, views Shiites as apostates. The group has posted grisly videos and photos of mass killings and beheadings, including the killing of American journalist James Foley, who was captured in Syria.
Amirli is no stranger to extremist violence. In 2007 a truck carrying 4.5 tons of explosives concealed under watermelons exploded in the town center, leveling dozens of mud brick homes and killing at least 150 people, making it one of the deadliest single bombings in Iraq. That attack was blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq, a precursor to the Islamic State group.
Earlier this week, the U.N. special representative for Iraq, Nickolay Mladenov, called for immediate action in Amirli “to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens.”
Iraqi troops loyal to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad are trying to relieve the town by breaking the blockade with an incursion from the west. Their U.S.-made Apache helicopters have targeted militant positions with airstrikes, but ground troops faced fierce resistance from the insurgents, who have also slowed their progress with booby-trapped homes and roadside bombs.
Amirli has “become an iconic point of resistance for the Shiites in Iraq,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute who made numerous visits to the town before the latest fighting began. “It is the last non-Sunni community that is totally exposed to (the Islamic State) right now, and it is fully encircled.”
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.