A hill on the outskirts of Amerli is apparently the last place that fighters from the Sunni Muslim extremist group, the Islamic State, were able to hold before they were beaten off. A day after their victory, Iraqi Kurdish soldiers and Iraqi police were raising their own flags on this hill, having removed the distinctive black flag the Islamic State, or IS, group uses.
The victory over the IS group, a combined effort between Iraqi, Iraqi Kurdish, Iranian and US forces, spelled the end of a major IS siege of the town of Amerli, which had been sheltering an estimated 15,000 to 17,000 locals. All of the towns and areas around Amerli were controlled by the IS group. But Amerli itself is home to the Turkmen ethnicity, most of whom are Shiite Muslim. There are also Sunni Muslims and Iraqi Kurdish in the town but they are in the minority. The IS group are Sunni Muslim extremists and all the residents knew that if IS fighters managed to enter their village, their fate would be dire, or deadly.
So the people of Amerli decided to defend their own town, and they have been doing so since early June, for almost three months.
When the people of Amerli realized that the siege had been lifted and that the IS fighters had been driven away, some of the local women began singing, ululating joyfully in celebration. The men of Amerli, which is inside the Salahaddin province and part of the Tuz Khurmatu district, began to fire their guns in the air.
Many in Amerli, who had been surviving without proper food supplies, power or water, believed that Iran had given the rescue attempts a green light when the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Marzieh Afkham, announced that the security situation in Amerli had deteriorated so badly that Iran could not stand by and simply watch disaster unfold.
A senior member of the Iraqi Kurdish military, who could not give his name because he was not allowed to comment on such matters, told NIQASH that he thought the Iranians had provided 200 military vehicles and more than 700 fighters, including volunteers, as well as 24 military advisers, some of whom had supported and aided the Iraqi Kurdish military.
The Iraqi army and the Iraqi police also played a part in breaking the siege, as did Shiite Muslim militias from inside Iraq – some of these are considered to have close relations with Iran. US air strikes also had an impact.
The Iraqi Kurdish military source says the siege was broken as various different forces attacked from three different sides. Iraqi Kurdish military, known as the Peshmerga, joined forces with Iranian soldiers to attack from the Kirkuk side. Iraqi federal police and army attacked from the Tuz Khurmatu side and Iraqi Shiite Muslim militias together with Iranian volunteers launched attacks from the Sulaiman Bek side. All of the attackers were supported by US air strikes, which were shelling the area at the same time as ground forces made their moves.
It would have been almost impossible for one military force to break the siege on its own. The town had been isolated because the IS group controlled the nearby town of Sulaiman Bek, about 10 kilometres from Amerli; this town is on the road that connects Amerli with Tuz Khurmatu , the nearest town still under government control about 27 kilometres away.
“After fighting with the IS group, which lasted for about six hours, we were able to get rid of all the IS fighters from Sulaiman Bek too and to open the Kirkuk to Baghdad road,” explains Sarhad Ahmad, who commands one of the regiments of the Iraqi Kurdish military currently in Amerli. “That’s what made it easier for us to liberate Amerli.”
“A trench with a width of about two metres and a depth of about three meters had been dug around Amerli before fighting began,” Mustafa Hassan, who led Amerli's local defence force, told NIQASH. “There was also a mound of earth about five meters high. And that stopped the IS fighters from entering Amerli even though they were in control of all the areas around us.”
“Battles used to regularly begin after six in the evening,” Hassan explained. “And the IS fighters were bombarding the city every day, with tanks, mortars and Katyusha rockets. But everyone in the city made the decision to continue to resist the onslaught.”
The amount of damage wrought by the long siege has not yet been fully accounted for. “Nineteen people have been killed, including two pregnant women,” one medical worker inside Amerli told NIQASH, stressing that the figures were unofficial. “Around 25 were injured and 20 children have died because of hunger.”
Food and medical supplies were delivered to Amerli several times during the siege but they were not enough, the official responsible for the area, Adel Shakur al-Bayati, said. “Sadly some people died because of a lack of supplies,” al-Bayati told NIQASH. “The high [summer] temperatures and the lack of water and power were also to blame.”
Many locals said they were still afraid that the IS group would manage to return. But currently the most important thing, they said, was the resupplying and reconstruction of the town, as well as aid getting quickly to those in need of food and medical care. While some locals were worried that not enough was being done, the mayor of Tuz Khurmatu, Shalal Abdul, insisted that his town would supply the people of Amerli with water, power, food and medicine as soon as possible.
Many in the area believe the victory in Amerli is extremely significant, and not just in humanitarian terms, in that a disaster has been averted.
As the New York Times reported: “The siege of Amerli is thought to be the first time a town has managed to keep the militants at bay since the group, which now calls itself the Islamic State, began its march through wide areas of Iraq”.
The small city has become a symbol of resistance and what the residents achieved in their own defence is seen as a blow to the IS group’s propaganda machine, which paints the organization as righteously invincible, despite clear indications to the contrary; it is neither righteous nor invincible.
A more troubling symbol of what has been going on in Amerli is the reawakening of sectarian pride in the town. Black and green flags representing Shiite Muslim figures can be seen all over the city now, especially as Iranian forces and Shiite Muslim militias are thought to have played a big part in Amerli’s liberation.
Iraq’s outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also capitalized on the event, visiting Amerli by military helicopter on Monday. He vowed that the people of Amerli would not be left alone and that Iraqi forces would protect them. He also said that this victory was the beginning of the end for the IS group.