Iraqi army units, supported by Shiite militiamen, broke the six-week Islamic State siege of the town of Amirli on Sunday with the help of U.S. airstrikes.
The town is home to 20,000 ethnic Turkmen who IS had targeted for destruction. Cut off from food, medicine, water, and ammunition, the townspeople fought off Islamic State forces who had surrounded the town in July.
Iraqi forces entered the town Sunday, Army spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said, adding the military suffered “some casualties.” He said fighting was still ongoing in surrounding villages.
“We thank God for this victory over terrorists,” Nihad al-Bayati, who had taken up arms with fellow residents to defend the town, told The Associated Press by phone from the outskirts of Amirli. “The people of Amirli are very happy to see that their ordeal is over and that the terrorists are being defeated by Iraqi forces. It is a great day in our life.”
The community, located about 105 miles north of Baghdad, initially came under siege in June, but 15,000 Shiite Turkmen were able to hold off militants, who eventually surrounded the village in mid-July.
“Today is a day of victory for Iraq and the resilient people of Amirli,” retired Gen. Khaled al-Amerli, an Amerli resident and member of its self-defense force, told CNN.
Turkmen lawmaker Fawzi Akram al-Tarzi said the military was disturbing aid to residents of Amirli, which is home to the Turkmen, an ethnic minority.
The news comes after U.S. warplanes conducted a fresh round of airstrikes and emergency aid drops in Amirli, the Pentagon announced late Saturday night. The operation was similar to the one mounted at Mount Sinjar, not far away in northern Iraq, to help save Yazidis, a religious minority that militants had also besieged.
“These military operations were conducted under authorization from the commander-in-chief to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and to prevent an (IS) attack on the civilians of Amirli,” Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement. “The operations will be limited in their scope and duration as necessary to address this emerging humanitarian crisis and protect the civilians trapped in Amirli.”
It’s becoming clear that no matter if it’s the Peshmerga or Iraqi troops, U.S. air power closely coordinated with ground assaults is an irresistible force. Our air force is making the Iraqi army look competent.
But the Amirli operation brings into focus something that should be on the minds of both military and civilian leaders in Washington.
We can’t save everybody.
We could save everybody if we radically expanded the mission. But we’re not going to do that. The humanitarian crisis that’s sweeping across the Levant is the worst in a century. There are more than 3 million external refugees in Syria with another 3 million internally displaced. There are a million more people on the move in Iraq. The world hasn’t even begun to address the basic needs of these people and we are likely to see a catastrophe if the nations don’t get their act together and supply the refugees with food, clean water, medicine, and decent shelter.
The Yazidi and Amirli operations were carried out because they had become hot stories in the news — humanitarian crises which the U.S. felt compelled to respond to. The Mosul Dam was retaken for the same reason, although the thought of IS blowing it up and killing half a million people was also considered.
But there have to be dozens of towns and villages that are suffering a similar fate as Amirli, and the sad truth is, unless we want to jump back into Iraq with both feet, those unfortunate people will be left to their own devices.
No doubt we will be hearing of another tragedy in the making in the next few days. And once again, U.S. fighter jets will plow the way clear for Iraqi forces to relieve the crisis. But unless an overall strategy emerges to roll back IS forces in Iraq and Syria, this piecemeal approach — which looks good in the media — will only serve to delay the time of reckoning when the Iraqi army must take control of the destiny of their country and confront Islamic State forces wherever they are.