At 62, Abu Ali thought he was done taking up arms to fight in Iraq’s conflicts. Then, in late June, Islamic State militants encircled his small Shiite city of Amerli in northern Iraq and began eight weeks of constant shelling.
He’s back in the trenches, fearing a massacre of his family if the extremists break his city’s defenses.
“I am too old to carry a weapon, but I have to fight,” he said in a phone interview with McClatchy.
Amerli, a Turkmen enclave, has resisted the Islamic State’s sweep into Iraq since June 20, when it was first attacked.
Now out of water and electricity, its residents are pleading for help from the Iraqi and U.S. militaries to end the siege with airstrikes and an assault.
They want the U.S. and Iraqi governments to intervene as forcefully to save them from the extremists as they did to protect thousands of Yazidis who were overrun by militants in the city of Sinjar on Aug. 3.
“All our suffering comes from politics,” bemoaned Abu Ali, questioning why the minority Shiite Turkmen in his city have been left mostly to fend for themselves while others have been rescued.
The Islamic State reached the gates of Amerli on June 20 as it pushed through Salahadin province after seizing the city of Mosul. The Islamic State displaced hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims, whom the extremists regard as infidels, throughout the region.
Amerli was the lone holdout among its neighboring Shiite communities. Residents say the Islamic State now has all of its exit roads blocked, meaning no one can escape the fighting.
Niyazi Mimaroglu, a Turkmen member of Iraq’s Parliament, this week demanded more direct intervention from Western governments. He called their inaction so far “astonishing.”
The city’s 12,000 residents are getting by amid the scorching summer heat with limited medical resources and twice-weekly resupply missions flown by the Iraqi military out of Baghdad.
Even those flights have been interrupted by the Islamic State’s ferocious recent attacks on Amerli, said Michael Knights, a fellow at The Washington Institute who has spent time with Amerli residents and remained in touch with them since the siege began.
Amerli once was the site of another devastating attack by Islamic militants. In July 2007, explosives hidden in trucks killed more than 150 people and injured hundreds more.
“Now the latest incarnation of murderous jihadists is back to finish the job,” Knights wrote.
U.S. officials have been considering whether to deliver humanitarian assistance through air drops to Amerli and whether to use force to push back the militants.
That sort of mission could fit the criteria of President Barack Obama’s Aug. 7 order permitting the use of force by the U.S. military in Iraq to prevent humanitarian disasters.
However, American officials have been reluctant to intervene because they fear mission creep in Iraq, Knights said.
“Others believe this is an area where the U.S. could make the difference very easily,” he said.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi military attempted to break the siege with a coordinated assault drawing on government forces, Kurdish peshmerga militia and Shiite volunteer militias. It failed. The military is planning a new operation to break through the siege soon, a Ministry of Defense spokesman said.
That mission can’t come soon enough for Kadhum Ashur, an Amerli resident with five children. He doesn’t let them go outside because he’s concerned he’ll lose them to Islamic State mortars.
“We fight (the Islamic State) and we will never let them in,” Ashur, 46, said.
Amerli has a small contingent of Iraqi security forces within its borders, as well as volunteers from the community to push back the militants.
“Either we die from fighting them or we die when they enter the town. We face death every day,” Ashur said.
This week, Knights heard from residents that the Islamic State stepped up its barrage of the city. He thinks militants might be feeling momentum swing against them as they lose ground in Iraq’s Kurdish north.
He believes they’re making one more severe assault on Amerli because “they may have to retreat and don’t want to leave any Shi’a alive when they go.”