Residents of Amerli refuse to join the stream of Iraqi refugees fleeing the north of the country, after Iraqi forces, Shii‘te militia and Kurdish peshmerga break siege by Sunni militants
Iraqi forces and Shi‘ite militiamen entering the formerly beleaguered town of Amerli were greeted with joy and relief by its mostly Shi‘ite Turkmen residents Sunday, after breaking an 80-day siege by Sunni militants with the help of U.S. air strikes overnight.
“First came the Shi‘ite fighters and then the Iraqi army,” says Qasim Jawad Hussein, a 45-year-old schoolteacher and father of five. He also says local residents shot in the air to celebrate as the city was liberated. When Hussein spoke with TIME one week ago, his small community was surrounded by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) militants, and he could see their black flags flying just a few miles away. Now, he says, “their flags are gone.”
For weeks, residents and Turkmen leaders have been asking for American assistance against ISIS forces around Amerli, hoping for the kind of aerial support that Yedizis trapped on Mount Sinjar received earlier this month. The siege was broken Sunday after days of helicopter evacuations and humanitarian air drops by the Iraqi army.
Hussein was one of many Amerli residents who fought back against the militants when they first approached the village in June. But this weekend, it took the cooperation of three armed forces — the Iraqi national army, the Kurdish peshmerga and Shi‘ite militias — to break this siege, aided by U.S. air strikes.
The threat is not over, however. ISIS still controls the area to the west of Amerli and Kurdish peshmerga forces continue to clash with the militants. “The fighting is still ongoing,” says Major General Marwan Mohamed Amin, who controls a peshmerga unit fighting ISIS in Suleiman Beg to the north of Amerli and Khasa Darli to the west. He says the fighting there remains heavy and they will need more U.S. air strikes to defeat those positions.
“We also need more ammunition,” says Amin, adding that his unit had yet to receive any new American weapons. While today’s operations are being touted as a success, ISIS still controls swaths of Iraqi territory. “We are still fighting with the old weapons we took from Saddam Hussein’s army.”
Villagers say what they need most is supplies. The U.S. dropped around 7,000 ready-to-eat meals and 10,500 gallons of clean drinking water last night, as well as conducting air strikes. Australia, France and the U.K. also dropped humanitarian aid, but this village has been under siege for more than two months and supplies of everything are low.
“People are not going out from Amerli, we just need food, water and medical supplies,” says Mahdi Taqi, a local Turkmen official in Amerli. The village is out of fuel and while yesterday’s humanitarian drops feed hungry mouths, fuel is needed to run the generators, required to produce much-needed electricity.
Despite the shortages, and the fact that local forces have managed to open a corridor to Tuz Khormato, a nearby Turkmen village, Hussein and other residents say they are not leaving to follow the over 1 million Iraqis who have fled their homes since ISIS began its rampage across northern Iraq in June. “No, I will stay in my city. Why should I leave?” Hussein asks.
“We suffered and we resisted and we managed to get the victory,” Taqi adds. “Our moral is high. We just need supplies.”