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Fearing massacre in Amirli, Iraqis ask U.S. for additional support

August 27, 2014 at 6:29 PM EST
In the town of Iraqi town of Amirli, 15,000 Shiite Turkmen civilians have been under siege by Islamic State militants for more than 70 days without adequate food, water or medicine. Hari Sreenivasan gets an update from chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner on what the Iraqi military is asking the United States to provide in order to stave off a potential massacre.
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GWEN IFILL: Hari Sreenivasan spoke with Margaret earlier today.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Margaret, let’s start with the situation in the town of Amirli, where the president has considered airstrikes or possibly even humanitarian intervention.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Hari, I have talked to people — I have tried to get people inside Amirli, have not been able to, but talked to senior Turkmen officials, people involved with them in Baghdad, who say it is desperate.

There are 15,000 civilians trapped there.  They have been under siege for 76 days.  They are without adequate food, water or medicine.  He had harrowing stories to tell of people dying for lack of medical care.  Now, the Iraqi air force has been airdropping in supplies of food and medicine, alternated with supplies of weapons.

But, for example, yesterday, they only got an airdrop of weapons, not a food and medicine, so it is a very, very dire situation, or, as the head of the U.N. mission in Iraq warned, there’s a real danger of a massacre, should the I.S. forces actually make their way into this town of Shiite Turkmen.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, how are they defending themselves?  Is it with these airdrops of weapons?  Is that adequate?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, that was really interesting, Hari.

You would think, how does a town of 15,000 people defend themselves against the ISIS forces?  Well, it turns out that, first of all, they’re Turkmen.  They’re tough.  And, secondly, many are veterans of the Iraqi army.  So though they are now farmers or merchants or shop owners, they know how to use weapons.

Now, they have very old weapons.  The airdrops have helped give them weapons, but they are surrounded.  So they have to defend from every direction.  They have divided the town into areas.  And they defend all around.

The airstrikes — I mean, the strikes by ISIS or the advances apparently take place between midnight and the morning, so they’re kind of prepared mostly for that.  But they say they can hold out for a while, but it is very, very tough.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What are the Iraqi Turkmen asking for in terms of help?

MARGARET WARNER: Number one, Hari, they are saying they think their fighters can hold out for a while on that front, if the humanitarian problem is solved.

So they want one of two things.  First of all, they want better airdrops of food, medicine and water.  The Iraqi military, I’m told, has only maybe two dozen helicopters.  They have got a lot of missions all over Iraq against the ISIS forces.  So they only get there two times a week.

So, they really want the Americans to do what the Americans did on Sinjar Mountain, which is massive airdrops of supplies.  Secondly — and here’s where it gets problematic — they would like an evacuation corridor north toward Tuz, a town that we actually went through and had to skirt, because that is where ISIS control begins.

And, there, they said well, yes, it has to go through three Arab villages.  A senior Kurdish military official told me today that, he thinks, will be problematic for the Americans, because they have made clear in these joint operation centers they do not want to bomb areas where there are civilians.  There are three Arab villages along that route.

The Turkmen say, oh, well, they’re all sympathizers and partners of ISIS, as they call it.  But the Kurdish Peshmergas are not so sure that the Americans will be willing to do that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So if the U.S. does get involved, what sorts of forces would be involved in an operation?

MARGARET WARNER: That’s also an interesting question.

First of all, of course, clearly, the Iraqi forces.  This town, though it is called in Northern Iraq, is really equidistance between Irbil, where I am now, in the Kurdish capital, and Baghdad.  So the Iraqi forces are pretty close and their air force has been helping.

The question is whether the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, who are right down across from it — it is kind of where I was five days ago — are willing to support it.  That’s where ethnic politics comes in, in — or ethnic hostilities comes in, in Iraq.  The Turkmen and the Kurds have never been pals.  They are in contention for control of territory in Kirkuk and elsewhere, including in this kind of area, general area.

So this Kurdish military official said to me, I’m not sure that these Shiite — Shiite Turkmen want us there.

The Turkmen said to me, look, they shouldn’t be on the front lines, but they should help with artillery.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Margaret Warner, thanks so much.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Hari.