AS ISLAMIC militants rampaged across northern Iraq in June, seizing vast swaths of territory and driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, the Shiite Turkmens living in the town of Amirli decided to stay and fight.
The wheat and barley farmers took up arms, dug trenches and posted gunmen on the rooftops, and against all odds they have kept the Islamic State (IS) extremist group out of the 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 said. “There is no other solution. If we have to die, so be it.”
Every three days, he makes his way back 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 IS 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 is extremely scarce. During the day, temperatures soar well above 110F, and on some nights shells rain down on the town, forcing the family to huddle indoors in the darkness and stifling heat.
A few of the men on the front lines have access to power generators for one to two hours per day and are able to charge their phones in order to maintain contact with the outside world.
Residents say IS militants first approached the town in late June. When the townsmen fought them off, the militants retaliated by blowing up the main power station to the north and destroying several wells on the outskirts of the town.
The town, 105 miles north of Baghdad, has been surrounded by the insurgents since July. The Iraqi military has been flying in food, medicine and weapons, but residents say it isn’t enough, and that many are falling victim to disease and heat stroke in the relentless August heat.
They face a far worse fate if the town falls. IS, 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 of the killing of American journalist James Foley.
Amirli is no stranger to extremist violence. In 2007 a truck bomb killed at least 150 people, making it one of Iraq’s deadliest single bombings.