Islamic state lays siege to Iraqi Turkmen town – Al Jazeera

Conversations with residents from the besieged town of Amerli who managed to escape the ISIS blockade. Residents are starving and have no power or water. Story here

Kirkuk, Iraq – About to give birth, and with all roads in and out of town blocked, Amina lived in fear for eight days as fighters from the Islamic State group besieged the Iraqi town of Amerli.

Home to about 15,000 primarily Shia Muslim Turkmen, an ethnic minority in Iraq, Amerli sits in Salahaddin province, 175km north of Baghdad and not far from the city of Tuz Khurmatu and the Kurdish Peshmerga frontline.

After the Islamic State group took control of nearby villages, the town’s water and electricity were cut, food and fuel supplies dropped dangerously low, and rocket attacks and sniper fire began to break out on a daily basis. Amina, who didn’t give Al Jazeera her real name, escaped from Islamic State fighters by posing as the wife of a neighbouring Sunni Muslim villager.

“After walking a short way, our neighbour met us and we drove down a small track. It was the end of June. At the checkpoint there were three armed men, one was Iraqi and two were not. Our friend told them, ‘This is my wife, she wants to give birth’ … They kept asking us questions for ten minutes,” Amina, who is Turkman, recalled from Kirkuk, where she gave birth to her newborn daughter and sought refuge.

Amina said she saw corpses lying beside the checkpoint while she escaped. The man who helped her was later captured, she said. She doesn’t know if he is alive or dead.

Around 2,000 fighters – a mix of ex-Iraqi army and police officers, and other local residents – are defending the town, according to Mustafa Hassan, the leader of Amerli’s local defence force and an Iraqi army colonel. Local defence force members are armed with light weapons, which Hassan said are not enough to counter the Islamic State fighters.

“[The Islamic State group is] gathering fighters from other cities of Hawija, Tikrit, and Mosul. Also, every day they are getting more high quality weapons,” he said. “This is a battle of honour for us, we are defending our land and our families and we will not stop until our last drop of blood.”

The Islamic State group controls the nearby town of Suleiman Beg and all the villages surrounding Amerli. Islamic State fighters are currently one kilometre outside of Amerli, Hassan said, and the battle with local forces is taking place on the town’s outskirts. “They attack us every two or three days with ground troops and they sometimes use tanks and armored vehicles, as well as humvees,” he said. “Mortar attacks occur on daily basis.”

Speaking to Al Jazeera by phone, the town’s only volunteer doctor said two civilians have been killed by sniper fire, and many others were injured as a result of the fighting. Women have died in childbirth because they couldn’t get to a hospital, he said, because the nearest hospitals are in Tuz Khurmatu and Kirkuk, 25 and 100km away from Amerli, respectively.

Children and elderly patients are suffering from illnesses related to drinking unclean water and lacking food, the doctor said.

Meanwhile, United States defence officials reported on Wednesday that the Obama administration is considering launching a relief mission to the besieged town. The nature of the mission and the timetable for reaching a decision has not been made clear.

The Iraqi army has delivered weapons to local fighters in Amerli, Hassan told Al Jazeera. “We receive the weapons by helicopters from Baghdad… The government sends us weapons and ammunitions.” These same helicopters also deliver food from the Iraqi Red Crescent, and drugs and medical supplies supplied by the World Health Organisation,

Muhammed Essmat Ibrahim, a governing board member of the Iraqi Red Crescent, said that the aid is being transported in by Iraqi army helicopter because “there is no other way [to get the supplies in], just the military helicopters”.

Dr Jaffar Hussain, a WHO representative in Iraq, said the organisation gives medical supplies to the Iraqi health ministry, which then transfers them to Amerli. “The issue is there are places like Amerli where there is no access,” Hussain said. “We have been doing this in Amerli for security reasons.”

The food drops, however, are “not enough”, the local doctor said. “We need bread, milk, clean water,” he said. “The world, the international community and the UN need to help us. They just help Kurdistan, Makhmour and Sinjar, and not Amerli.”

Meanwhile, human rights groups and UN representatives have warned that the conditions could deteriorate further. “The situation of the people in Amerli is desperate and demands immediate action to prevent the possible massacre of its citizens,” Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations special representative for Iraq, said in a statement.

Hasim Ali’s family is still in Amerli. Speaking to Al Jazeera from Kirkuk, and using a pseudonym for fear of reprisal, Ali explained that residents are surviving on bread made after the town’s recent wheat harvest, salt water from wells, and whatever food rations arrive from aid groups.

“Some Sunni families in surrounding villages were helping the people of Amerli; they would tell us when the roads were safe and open. After ten days, [Islamic State fighters] found out about these Sunni families and captured and killed some of them. Now there is no contact between Amerli and these villages,” Ali said.

Three Amerli residents – Qadria, her son Ali, and her neighbour Fatima (not their real names) – escaped Amerli two weeks ago after jumping into an Iraqi army helicopter.

“We waited for hours because we heard that the helicopter would come. First, they unloaded weapons and some food supplies, and after that everyone rushed towards the doors. There was a fight to reach the helicopter, we lost our shoes and abayas [traditional dress] but managed to get on with about 30 others,” Qadri said.

For Amina, fleeing Amerli was bittersweet, as she had to leave behind her four children and husband, who is fighting against the Islamic State group.

Her children don’t have enough to eat, she added, explaining that she has spoken to her seven-year-old daughter every day since she left and has had to make-up stories to rationalise her absence. “I tell her that they are fixing the road so I can’t travel back. I say I will return when the roads are mended.”

ISIS takes over fourth century monastery as Iraqi Christians flee – Huffington Post

ISIS takes over fourth century monastery as Iraqi Christians flee

ERBIL, Iraq (RNS) A day after most of Mosul’s Christians fled, Islamic State fighters stormed the fourth-century Mar Behnam Monastery near the city.

They forced two priests, a monk, a guard and a few families taking refuge there to leave the Syriac Catholic compound. Like many Christians from Mosul, which lies in the province of Nineveh, home to many historic Christian places of worship, the refugees traveled to the relative safety of Kurdish-controlled areas.

Faced with an ultimatum to convert to Islam, pay a religious tax or be killed, by Saturday (July 19) most of Mosul’s Christians had fled. The following day, militants descended on the monastery.

Iraq’s second-largest city is now controlled by militants led by the Islamic State group, formerly known as ISIS, which has also taken over large swaths of the country, in addition to parts of Syria. Iraq’s army, which Christians say never adequately protected them, fell quickly.

The Christians of Mosul are thought to have numbered 35,000 at the time of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. That number dropped to an estimated 3,000 more recently. Only a few hundred families remained in the city before the ultimatum, according to one resident. Among them are members of the Syriac Catholic Church, one of 22 Eastern Catholic Churches, which are self-governing but enjoy full communion with Rome.

Left behind were many places of worship. Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Iraq’s Chaldean Catholic Church said the monastery is “very ancient and we have many ancient and important books in the library there.”

“This is our house and our country,” he said, adding that the militants are outsiders.

“They have no right to treat Christians in this way.”

The clerics from Mar Behnam fled to the Christian town of Qaraqosh, about 20 miles from Mosul. Qaraqosh is under Kurdish control.

Archbishop Petros from Mosul’s Syriac Catholic Church said Qaraqosh is safe for now and at least 250 Christian families have taken refuge there.

Petros described the Islamic State ultimatum to the Christians of Mosul as “a threat against humanity.”

A Christian woman hanging laundry outside her temporary home in Ankawa, the Christian district of the Kurdish capital, Erbil, said that after militants took over Mosul the family was left without water and electricity. The family fled from Baghdad in 2005 to escape discrimination there and has now found itself on the move again. Now the family is living in a small home with two other families in the Kurdish region.

“There is no stability in our lives,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “We are psychologically tired with this situation. I would leave Iraq at any opportunity but we have no other place to go exactly.”

Since the beginning of the year, when militants captured parts of Anbar province in western Iraq, an estimated 1.2 million people have been displaced by violence.

Shiite Muslims as well as Iraqi minorities such as Yazidis, Turkmen and Shabaks are particularly vulnerable to killings and capture by the Islamic State fighters. Human rights groups have expressed concern about attacks by Shiite militias and government airstrikes, as well as Islamic State raids.

This week, the U.N. Security Council denounced the persecution of minorities in Iraq, condemning “in the strongest terms the systematic persecution of individuals from minority populations.”

Last remaining Christians flee Mosul – Al Jazeera

Last remaining Christians flee Mosul, Al Jazeera.

Erbil, Iraq – After the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State led groups in early June, Michael (not his real name), an Assyrian Christian from Mosul, decided to remain.

Unlike his fellow Christians who left, Michael wanted “to keep an eye on the city’s churches”, despite warnings from local church leaders who instructed the community members to leave out of fear for their safety. Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city.

Fighters led by the Islamic State had made a lightening assault against government forces and took over the city.

Michael described how a statue of the Virgin Mary had been destroyed and black flags had been raised above churches instead. At the time he said he felt like “we are in the quiet before the storm”.

On Thursday, that storm arrived when militants issued their decree to the Christians of Mosul.

The last remaining Christians now have fled Mosul after Islamic State militants issued an ultimatum giving them until noon on July 19 to converted to Islam, pay a tax, or be killed if they stayed.

The ultimatum triggered a wave of criticism internationally, but also among Muslim scholars.

On Monday, the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Iyad Ameen Madani, condemned the act against innocent Christian Iraqi citizens in Mosul and Nineveh including forced deportation under the threat of execution.

“This forced displacement is a crime that cannot be tolerated; and the practices of the Islamic State have nothing to do with Islam and its principles that call for justice, fairness, freedom of faith and coexistence,” he said in a statement.

In 2003, it was thought that Christians in Mosul numbered 35,000. The number dwindled due to a wave of migration. Some estimates put the most recent numbers at 3,000 Christians out of a city of 2 million people. Before the ultimatum, Michael says only a few hundred Christian families remained in the city.

“The [religious] tax was in the official letter sent out but we heard from them via our leaders that we could only convert, leave or be killed. Saturday was our last chance.”

Michael fled on Thursday evening with three other families crammed into one car – travelling to the city of Dohuk in the relatively stable Kurdistan region. Getting through the Kurdish checkpoint meant a three-hour agonising wait. “It was not easy, they made it hard for us,” he said.

“My family are very sad and crying – we left our land and everything we have so we won’t be killed.”

At the same time, Christians had their homes marked in red and then confiscated.
Michael is now staying with relatives, but he doesn’t know for how long he and his family can remain there or what they will do in the future.

Louis Sako, the Chaldean Catholic Patriarch in Baghdad, warned
on Thursday that this “discrimination” will lead to the “elimination of the possibility of coexistence between majorities and minorities”.

“Should this direction continue to be pursued, Iraq will come face to face with human, civil, and historic catastrophe.”

On Saturday, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Region, Nechirvan Barzani, released a statement calling on the international community to provide aid to those forced to flee, and asking the people of the Kurdistan Region to help the families.

He said that Christian families had come to Kurdistan “without being allowed to take any of their belongings”.

Kurdish checkpoints are currently clogged with internally displaced persons (IDPs) trying to escape Iraq’s restive regions. More than 500,000 IDPs have arrived since the fall of Mosul, adding to over 200,000 Syrian refugees already sheltering there.

Mosul has long been an important centre for Christian communities. Not far from the city are the historic monasteries of St Matthew and St Elijah’s. But hard times have meant that many Christians have fled Iraq in the years preceding the US-led invasion and in the years afterwards, in the wake of increasing sectarian violence.

In 2010, an attack on the Our Lady of Salvation church in Baghdad killed 58, speeding up the exodus both internally and externally. Many Christians, who at that time fled north, now find themselves under the control of the Islamic State group and are on the move again.

Nadir (not his real name due to security issues) is in late middle age with grown up children. He is part of the Syriac Orthodox church. He studied abroad and has had a long professional career in Mosul. He left with his wife before the ultimatum was issued and now sits in his son’s home in a partly finished complex of houses, a few kilometres outside the Kurdish capital, Erbil.

Evening falls as the power fails. We sit in the dark as he takes stock of the situation. “I am the first man … [to be against] migration from Iraq, but now there is an idea accumulating in my mind to leave,” he says, reflecting the feelings of many Christians to whom Al Jazeera spoke. “Everyone is leaving Iraq.”

It is not only Christians that are feeling the force of the militants rule, members of other minority groups such as Turkmen, Yazidis and Shabaks have also been captured or killed as the fighting spreads. Shia Muslims remain especially vulnerable to attacks by the Islamic State group.

Air strikes carried out by the Iraqi security forces are adding to the woes of people trapped in fighting zones, many also without reliable water or electricity.

The Kurdish armed forces (Peshmerga) have moved into previously disputed areas of northern Iraq – but in many towns the front lines are not far away.

One Christian resident of Qaragosh, which is under Peshmerga control but saw heavy fighting at the end of June, describes the atmosphere in the town as “a scary kind of safety”.

Qaragosh is 30km from Mosul and Archbishop Petros from Mosul’s Catholic Syrian church, speaking from Qaragosh, told Al Jazeera that between 200-250 families have arrived in the town since the Islamic State’s decree was announced on Thursday.

“What [Islamic State] is doing in Mosul is not just against Iraqis, it is against all human beings,” he said via phone, palpably distressed. “We don’t need just writing, the world should stop this.”

“[The Islamic State group] seems intent on wiping out all traces of minority groups from areas it now controls in Iraq,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, in a statement released on Saturday.

“No matter how hard its leaders and fighters try to justify these heinous acts as religious devotion, they amount to nothing less than a reign of terror.”

A prominent Muslim leader could not agree more. Sheikh Khalid Al Mulla, head of the Iraqi Scholars Association in the south of the country, in a recent interview, condemned the displacement of Christians from Mosul and accused the Islamic State of “falsely wearing the dress of Islam to displace the Christian brothers who live with us for thousands of years”.

“Religious scholars should take responsibility in upholding the true voice of Islam,” he said.

On the border of collapse – Big Issue

For Muhammed, a Shia Turkmen from the village of Bashir in Kirkuk province, the advance of the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) on 17 June marked the second time he has been forced from his home.

The first time they were displaced by former Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein in 1986, in order to change the demographics in favour of his own sect and supporters.

Saddam allowed them to take their belongings and then flattened their homes, but Muhammed and his relatives tell me that the ISIS advance didn’t show the same mercy.

The extremist group considers Shia muslims to be heretics. Muhammed said that when they returned to the village in 2003 relations with his Sunni Arab neighbours were never good, but when ISIS attacked them, those same neighbours joined in the assault.

“Isis attacked the village with mortars and snipers – I was afraid and ran away. There were many injured and dead. ISIS have hummer cars and heavy weapons which they used against us.” Muhammed, the father of six says that some local people and federal police tried to fight back but most were killed or forced to flee.

Muhammed’s relative Ali says that the family later buried 18 people from Bashir in the neighbouring town of Taza.

“They also destroyed and bombed our shrines. They attacked us because we are Turkmen and because we are Shia.” 72 of his relatives including 32 children are crammed into the three bedroom house with Muhammed in the city of Kirkuk, which is controlled by the Kurdish armed forces.

Turkmen are one of Iraq’s ethnic minorities, who mainly live in the north of the country. Shia muslims in Iraq are particularly vulnerable to attacks by militants who have taken over large parts of northern Iraq, beginning on 10 June in the city of Mosul.

Along with other Sunni militants, ISIS led the capture of the city and continued south, wreaking havoc in the days following the fall of Mosul. Now they control the western city of Tal Afar, Mosul and Saddam’s home town of Tikrit – as well as large swathes of Syria.
Sunni militant groups also hold parts of Anbar province in the west of the country after fighting began there at the start of this year.

On 29 June ISIS announced via an audio statement the establishment of an Islamic caliphate spreading across Iraq and Syria. ISIS is now closing in on Baghdad but will have to face off Iraq’s burgeoning Shia militias if they want to enter the city. At the same time the political process in Baghdad continues to offer little solution to the disintegration of the country along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The UN reports that 1.2 million people have been uprooted since fighting first erupted in Iraq’s Anbar province at the beginning of the year. In June the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) recorded 2,417 deaths and 2,287 people injured – the highest death toll since 2007, during Iraq’s post invasion sectarian fuelled civil war. With battles continuing between Islamic militants, tribes, the Iraqi army and Shia militias, there seems to be little hope for the people trapped between the lines of fighting.

“I have no money to live in another place.” Muhammed tells me. “I am scared – we don’t know what will happen in the future.”

On the same day that ISIS announced the establishment of the caliphate, local media reported that the Badr brigade, a Shia militia, had tried to attack ISIS in the town of Bashir, only to be repelled. Reportedly 50 members of the militia were killed or injured.

Fractured state

After April’s national election, a government still hasn’t been formed leaving Iraq in political limbo and security turmoil. Incumbent Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s State of Law party won the most seats, but still not enough to form a government without reaching out to other political parties.

On 1 July the first session of parliament since the crisis failed to start the process of electing a Speaker. Soon after it began MPs were trading verbal attacks and Sunni and Kurdish politicians walked out in protest.

Maliki has served two terms as Prime Minister and is now looking to take office for a third. But throughout his tenure deep political distrust has been sewn amongst Sunnis and Kurds, Iraq’s two largest factions after Maliki’s Shia sect.

The Kurds, even though they helped to write the new Iraqi constitution after the US led invasion, feel that they have no impetus to remain within a failing state. Iraq’s Sunnis on the other hand have felt increasingly marginalised during the premiership of Maliki. He is widely accused of consolidated power and dominating the military.

Human Rights Watch in its 2014 World Report, accused the Iraqi government of responded to protest movements and unrest in Iraq with “mass arrest campaigns in Sunni regions, targeting ordinary civilians and prominent activists and politicians under the 2005 Anti-Terrorism Law,” as well as the abuse of detainees with impunity.

The Kurds in the north of the country have governed their own relatively stable region since the allied no fly zone was put into place in 1991, are now planning to hold a referendum on independence. The Kurds are spread across Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey and are often called the largest stateless nation.

President of the Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani said in an interview with the BBC on 1 July that “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people. We’ll hold a referendum and it’s a matter of months.”

The US, Turkey and neighbouring Iran oppose Kurdish independence and instead are campaigning for the formation of a unified government in Iraq – taking into account Sunnis, Shias, Kurds and smaller groups.

Kurdish advance

Immediately after the fall of Mosul the Kurds advanced to take control of the oil rich city of Kirkuk, which lies within the disputed territories, areas claimed by both the Kurdish government and Baghdad. The Kurdish armed forces known as the peshmerga, moved into the city to occupy deserted Iraqi army bases as the soldiers fled in the face of the ISIS advance.

The Kurds have now increased their territory by up to 40%, in their view settling long running disputes over territory in one fell swoop. But they must now protect their gains and the rest of Kurdistan along the new 1000km border they share with ISIS.

In a speech on 2 July Maliki accused the Kurds in Iraq of “exploiting current events in order to impose a reality” in reference to their takeover of Kirkuk.

In another push for independence, earlier this year the Kurds announced the start of independent oil sales to international markets from Kurdistan, bypassing the Iraqi’s central ministry of oil – further souring relations.

Kurdish statehood is a long held dream for most Kurds, and with growing political and financial autonomy from Baghdad, many feel the time is right.

“For Kurds, because we have been oppressed [in the past] we don’t trust the Iraqi government” said Hawdang Kamal, a student from the American University of Iraq, reflecting the views of many people in the region. “We can’t solve our problems until we separate from Iraq.”

But the disintegrating relationship with Baghdad brings back fears for some of past violence against the Kurds under Saddam Hussein. One Kurdish journalist was speaking to friends about the proposed referendum on independence in a Sulaimaniyah cafe after Barzani’s announcement. “Is it really the right time?” he said, looking anxious, adding “Maliki has just bought Russian fighter jets.”

Even though Kurds in Iraq are generally more secular than their Arab Iraqi counterparts, fears are also growing over the radicalisation of young Kurds. Kurdish officials reported that around 200 young men from Kurdistan have joined Islamic extremist groups in Syria since the start if the war there, many of them from the religiously conservative town of Halabja have been recruited by ISIS.

Halabja was also the site of Saddam’s infamous 1988 chemical attack that killed 5,000 people, and residents say there are little job opportunities, and that the town still hasn’t received the investment and infrastructure it needs.

Sunni split

Outside the Kurdish region, Shia militias are moving in to fight ISIS and protect sacred Shia sites, bringing fears of a drawn out war. But one Sunni leader says that ISIS are not the biggest threat to Iraq right now, Maliki is.

In a five star hotel in Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital Erbil, The Big Issue in the North and other foreign media met with Sheikh Ali Hatem Sulaiman, head of Anbar’s Dulaim tribe. Hatem was a leading figure in the Awakening movement, when Sunni tribes with US backing turned from fighting the occupation to fighting Al Qaeda. Sunni tribes such as Hatem’s are now in open revolt against Maliki.

Whilst sipping Diet Coke in a long brown dish dashe, Sheikh Ali denied there was an alliance between the tribes and ISIS, but was clear about his enemy.

“It is not the time to fight ISIS we have another enemy, we have to finish the fight with him [Maliki] and then go to fight ISIS” he said, using the group’s Arabic acronym ‘Daash.’
According to Hatem, the Sunni uprisings initially started with militants on the ground and then ISIS came in.

“ISIS makes up between 7-10% of the armed people fighting, but they will increase” says Hatem, adding that the tribes did not want “a fight on two fronts.”

Hatem says that even though there is no alliance with ISIS, there is coordination between tribes across Iraq, “all the rebels are in different groups, the police are part of the tribes, along with former Iraqi army officers, baathists, all of these groups are under the umbrella of the tribes.”

“Whatever the price we will not give up until we get all of our rights” said Hatem. “Our rights which have been taken from us we want them back.”

As well as removing Maliki, Hatem adds that the aim of the uprising is to have Shia, Sunni and Kurdish federal states in Iraq.

“We know that ISIS don’t believe in the tribes but they want to use us and work under our cover. I don’t think we can work with ISIS and be aligned because culturally we are totally different […] they don’t believe in dialogue, we believe in dialogue and have dialogue with everybody.”

Hatem says that because of Maliki’s oppression of the Sunni people, some citizens have welcomed ISIS.

“Obama in one of his speeches he talked about how to protect Baghdad and Maliki said Baghdad is a red line, but we want to say that there are no more red lines for the rebels, for the tribes. To not have this Baghdad fight we have to have Maliki out of power.”

When asked if the tribes are confident they can defeat ISIS after the fight with Maliki, Hatem says “we already did. Al Qaeda was much stronger than ISIS and we defeated Al Qaeda in 2008 in Anbar, so for us it would be really easy to defeat ISIS when we are done with Maliki.”

He claims the balance of power is still strongly in favour of the tribes, although he admits ISIS is growing in strength. “They can’t stand face to face with us we are stronger but the only thing which they have which we don’t have is the suicide bombers.”

Christine Van Den Toorn is an Iraq researcher and analyst. She says that the problem now will be pushing through a change of leadership in Iraq that make Sunnis feel they are part of the political process.

“Maliki has come to embody everything the Sunnis hate – whether they are right or not it is symbolic.”

“The problem will be maintaining the legitimacy of the previous elections and figuring out what to do about Maliki, who got the most personal votes and refuses to leave office.”
At the time of writing the Iraqi army is continuing its military offensive to recapture the city of Tikrit from militants, but so far they have not been successful. The Kurds are defining their new border and are engaged in battles with ISIS and local tribes in towns like Jalawla on the southern border of the Kurdistan region.

As political infighting threatens to lend the militants muscle, and the borders of the country crumble; it is those caught along fraught ethno-sectarian lines outside of anyone’s protection that are feeling the full force of the country’s collapse.

Muhammed and his family have made it to Kirkuk city, but as Shia Turkmen they remain vulnerable. Back in Muhammed’s temporary home, his relative Jumah tells me that his children wake up in the night, crying. Muhammed nods, “Life in Iraq is getting harder and harder.”

Photo by Jacob Russell