|Two girls smile in the Iraqi town of Amerli as assistance arrives from government forces and the UN on Tuesday. (AFP)
The children lined the unkempt boulevard in this northern Iraqi town on Tuesday to welcome some of the men who had saved them from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Convoy after convoy of armed men raced past, blaring victory music from loudspeakers and bristling with weaponry. They waved as the young residents clapped and chanted religious slogans, celebrating the men who had broken the militants’ chokehold on Amerli and allowed in the first shipments of food and water in nearly three months.
It took an odd coalition of Iraqi and Iranian militias backed by American air support to drive off the Islamic State (IS) fighters. But for long weeks before, the minority Shia Turkmen who live here held the line, waging a desperate campaign for survival as they took up arms to protect the estimated 15,000 residents.
Amid daily shelling and at least four major assaults by the IS, the people subsisted on onion soup and dry bread. Children joined the front lines during the day because there were not enough men for two shifts. Without gas, families cooked on open fires fuelled by sheep dung.
The siege of Amerli is thought to be the first time a town has managed to keep the militants at bay since the IS began its march through wide areas of Iraq. By Monday, aid from the UN had begun reaching the starving residents.
“The families in this village are so brave,” said Abu Abdullah, the commander of the Kataib Hezbollah militia that aided the residents. “There was no water, no electricity, no food and no milk for children, but they stood and fought the IS.”
On Tuesday, the colourful flags of at least four militias competed for prominence on the streets and buildings of Amerli.
The fact that American air power had helped was not as celebrated. Some of the militiamen had fought the Americans after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Abdullah spoke for many when he said: “We do not like the Americans, and we didn’t need their air strikes.”
By the time the militias began arriving, the IS had surrounded the town entirely. To the west, they were 2km away; to the east, just 500 metres. Residents had dug giant trenches in the mud around Amerli. Some had planted improvised explosive devices in the earth surrounding the town, hoping to keep the IS out.
They had been planning for a long time. The day Mosul fell, tribal leaders in Amerli called a meeting in the town mosque to discuss their options, sure that the militants would eventually reach them, according to one of the leaders, Sheikh Shahab Ahmed Barash.
The IS made four major assaults on the town, sometimes with more than 100 men at a time and the benefit of armoured vehicles.
But the biggest fight the residents of Amerli faced was against hunger, as the militants’ cordon kept supplies from entering.
During a series of interviews with commanders, several struggled to remember the exact dates when major attacks had occurred. Ibrahim Hamid Ali, an elder in Amerli, believes the first assault began shortly after 6pm on July 17, when the militants stormed the perimeter the residents had set up.
Barash and others said the fight lasted until dawn, when the Iraqi Air Force began to hit the areas under the militants’ control. The IS fighters slowly retreated, having been unable to breach the town.
For the next several weeks, Barash said, the militants studied the habits of the fighters for Amerli. They knew the town required boys to aid in the defence, but only during the day, when the youths could see the enemy.
On what residents believe was August 5, the IS fighters struck at 4.30am, just as Amerli’s defenders were switching to the day shift. The militants drove armoured vehicles up to the mud berms, seizing a few houses on the edge of the city, according to Barash and Ali.
The account was substantiated by video footage from IS fighters who later abandoned those homes, leaving a flash drive that the Amerli fighters recovered.
The Iraqi Air Force at one point accidentally struck an area with Amerli fighters, residents said, wounding nine people. Eventually, after coordination with forces on the ground, they corrected and began striking areas farther from the town, residents said. By sunset, the militants began to retreat.
As they surveyed the area afterwards, Barash encountered several bodies of IS fighters that the militants had not claimed. Standing over one, Barash heard a phone ring from inside the insurgent’s pocket. He grabbed the phone and spoke: “Come and take your body.”
But an old man answered, weeping. He told Barash that the IS had taken his son from him when they swept through his village. The militants had given him a choice: he could give them his daughter or one of his sons.
Crying on the phone, the old man said his son was a teenager, not even old enough for facial hair, and never learned how to fight.
“I told him I was sorry,” Barash said.