The UN is trying to draw attention to Amirli, Iraq, which ISIS has laid siege to for the past two months. The town, located several dozen miles east of Tikrit or south of Kirkuk, is home to 20,000 Shia Iraqi Turkmen living at the nexus of the Sunni Arab heartland and greater Iraqi Kurdistan — and ISIS plans to wipe them out. No Iraqi, Kurdish, or Western military force has stepped in to help. [Update: On Saturday, August 30, 2014, U.S. airstrikes began, while relief aircraft from Australia, Britain, and France dropped in supplies. Iraqi ground offensives began several days earlier.]
Though surrounded by more than 30 villages (presumably Sunni Arab) that have defected to ISIS, the town was able to seal itself off and maintains a tenuous lifeline to the outside via periodic helicopters. So far they’ve held out without much help since June — essentially just a small number of Iraqi soldiers and any weapons they had on hand — but they are now running out of food. Children are reportedly eating only once every three days.
Here’s one eyewitness report:
No Kurdish peshmerga, who have been fighting the Islamic State, have reached Amerli. There are only a few Iraqi soldiers who have remained after the retreat of the armed forces in June.
Haider al-Bayati, an Amerli resident, said the town is sealed off in all directions, with the nearest Islamic State position only 500 meters. With only helicopters able to bring in food, residents face starvation. Electricity has been cut off. The town has no hospital — the sick and injured must either be treated at a clinic staffed by nurses or evacuated by air.
With the helicopters only able to carry about 30 people per day, women have died in childbirth because of the lack of doctors, and according to residents, “People are dying from simple wounds because we don’t have the means to care for them.”
Dr Ali al-Bayati, who works for a humanitarian foundation has been moving in and out of the town by helicopter, added, “We are depending on salty water, which gives people diarrhoea and other diseases. Since the siege started, more than 50 sick or elderly people have died. Children have also died because of dehydration and disease.”
Former MP Mohammed Al-Bayati claimed that the town was being targeted by the Islamic State because of its Turkmen population. Noting the high-profile international effort to help the refugees of Sinjar after that town was overrun by the jihadists, he asserted, “Unfortunately, the situations are treated with two different standards”.
The question, then, is why the United States and the international community has not rallied to relieve the besieged town as they have done for the 40,000 starving Yazidis who were encircled for a week or so on Mount Sinjar.
My speculation is that the deciding factor is the position of the Iraqi Kurds, which have the most pull with the Western and U.S. leaders and military forces. Most Yazidis, who are a religious minority, speak Kurdish. Though heavily persecuted, they have a lot of powerful allies who are also key U.S. allies. In contrast, Iraqi Turkmen are a mix of mainstream Sunni and Shia but are a distinct ethno-linguistic minority — and unfortunately for this town they have had a very fraught relationship with the Kurds, who occupy an overlapping geographic space in northeastern Iraq. Although the Iraqi Turkmen faced plenty of persecution from Arab leaders (Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi monarchy, etc.), they have sometimes been played off by Arab leadership in Baghdad and Turkish leadership in Ankara and Istanbul against the Kurdish separatists and federalists.
Iraqi Turkmen, not to be confused with their ethno-linguistic cousins in Turkmenistan, number about 500,000 or so (making them the largest ethnicity in Iraq after Arabs and Kurds) and speak a fairly removed variation of South Azeri. Overall Azeri is a language in the Turkic family and has two large sub-variants: North Azeri is the language of Azerbaijan, while South Azeri is the language of Azeris in neighboring northwestern Iran and into northeastern Iraq. Drilling down even farther we arrive at the Iraqi Turkmen version of South Azeri, a dialect that is heavily influenced by late Ottoman Turkish (they were enthusiastic fans of Ottoman rule in Iraq) and to some extent influenced by Ataturk’s 20th century reformed version of that. Unfortunately, between their ongoing ties to the various 20th century governments in Turkey and their disappointment over the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, they have been regarded by many Arabs and Kurds as a fifth column within the Iraqi state and Kurdistan region.
Some Kurdish leaders in particular see them as a direct threat to Kurdish control of Kirkuk and even Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, because those cities are where many Iraqi Turkmen people are concentrated (although it’s important to note that there are far fewer of them than there are of Kurds). Iraqi Turkmen have been marginalized from participation in Kurdistan’s regional politics and have even faced direct oppression in the mid-20th century from ethnically Kurdish political parties. Between “Arabization” and reactive “Kurdification,” the Iraqi Turkmen caught in the middle have gotten a pretty raw deal all around.
But, right now, it seems possible that this particular town of Amirli is not a high priority for rescue under the calculations of the Kurdish political leadership and their peshmerga paramilitaries, who are facing ISIS attacks on Kurdish populations all across northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. By extension, if the Kurds don’t make Amirli’s rescue a priority, that means it’s probably not going to be bumped up the priority list for the U.S. and Western Europe.
That in turn is, unfortunately, going to lead to renewed accusations that the U.S. capriciously picks and chooses where it intervenes even when it has the capacity to help in multiple situations. Additionally, given the religious affiliation of this particular town and the sympathy being raised in the Shia Arab areas of Iraq by clerics, this is likely to fuel continued accusations that the U.S. policymakers don’t care about oppressed Shia populations across the world, just Sunni Arabs and (majority Sunni) Kurds.