“We saw Isil, there are daily clashes with Isil. Today and yesterday there was heavy fighting,” said one stranded Yazidi man, Dre’i Shamo, last week. “The situation is very tragic and critical.”
Further south, the advance of the jihadists of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant on Baghdad continues, slower than before but still with no sign of a reversal of fortune. Another district fell last week, after a major military base the week before, while scores more innocent civilians have died in a rise in bombings in the city itself.
The jihadists have also reached Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province and the last major city in western Iraq not in Isil’s hands.
The world’s attention has been focused on the medium-sized Kurdish town of Kobane, on the Syria-Turkey border, whose accessibility has provided countless opportunities for telegenic news coverage of American air strikes, which have multiplied in size and number. But Kobane is a secondary focus of the war that has been waging in Syria for more than three years; and that war is itself supposed to be secondary in strategic heft for America and its allies, including Britain.
They have deemed Iraq the first target of the fight against Isil. Yet the number of air strikes in supposedly less significant Syria has now reached double that in Iraq, as America and its allies seek to bolster Kobane’s defences.
Analysts and some Iraqis now wonder whether President Barack Obama’s declared strategy in the Middle East has been abandoned in favour of pursuing a short-term agenda dictated by the news agenda: that the “CNN factor was at play”, as Ben Barry, a former British Army brigadier, put it after compiling a detailed analysis of the military situation in Iraq.
Isil may even have drawn the West into a trap – pouring second-grade but eager foreign recruits into the battle for Kobane, while pursuing their more important goals next door, he said.
“Kobane is right against the border,” he told The Telegraph. “It may be that Isil deliberately took the decision to attack there to draw US air power away from Anbar.”
In the past two weeks, the Isil advance on Kobane has been halted, if not reversed. One series of pictures last week captured a moment that could become symbolic of the battle for the town: after a handful of jihadists managed to charge up a hill west of Kobane that had already changed hands twice, and replant their black flag on top, they were targeted by a massive air strike.
Flames shot dramatically in all directions, easily captured by the cameras perched just over the Turkish border a couple of hundred yards away.
Video showed the jihadists running back down the hill unharmed: the flag, it is true, was obliterated. Meanwhile, another jihadist flag still hangs over the eastern edge of town.
The US keen that the jihadists do not win the emotive victory of conquering the town and planting their flag over the border post with Turkey, a member of Nato.
But the town is hardly part of America’s strategic thinking – there are already long stretches of the border under Isil control. Then there is the threat to Baghdad and the resumed challenge to Mount Sinjar, where the death or capture of the 7,000 Yazidis estimated to be trapped there would be a humiliating humanitarian disaster.
Following the flight of the Peshmerga forces of the Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq in August, a huge international military effort was made to save the Yazidis, a colourful minority accused by jihadists of being devil-worshippers.
Tens of thousands were led to safety in Iraqi Kurdistan, but thousands of men were killed and thousands of women and children taken captive, even sold as sex slaves. Now, with far less attention, the remainder fear a similar fate. In the past two weeks, the jihadists have cut off their escape route, leaving them surrounded.
“Isil is close to the mountain,” said Dr Saad Babir, a doctor with the Yazidis, speaking by telephone from Mount Sinjar. “They climbed up here and there were clashes.”
He said 700 family groups were cut off, along with hundreds of fighters from both the Yazidis’s own hastily put together militia and the Peshmerga. He added that civilians, including children, were beginning to succumb once again to the poor conditions, including the lack of water.
To some extent, even Sinjar and the rest of northern Iraq is a sideshow now, at least since the US air strikes in August managed to halt the Isil advance on core Kurdish regional government territory.
Isil had reached within 30 miles of the KRG capital Erbil, and taken the dam at Iraq’s largest reservoir, Lake Mosul, before being halted.
Further south in Anbar, the large, mostly Sunni, province west of Baghdad, they are still on the march.
On Thursday, they seized the district of Albu Nimr, west of Ramadi, after taking the town of Heet the week before. The Sunni jihadists are close to Baghdad from the north, west, and south, having ventured within six miles of the outer “security” perimeter the Iraqi army has set up.
Even when the army is able to drive Isil back, it is unable to secure territory.
The demoralised army, after its stunning defeats in the summer, has come to rely ever more on hardline Shia militias marshalled by their backers in neighbouring Iran.
But the militias have a brutal reputation among the Sunni population that has to be won back over if the insurgency is to be defeated.
“Isil has made solid gains in Heet and parts of Haditha,” said Hamid al-Mutlaq, a senior Sunni MP. “The US air support is there and good but the problem is that there are no ground forces to hold the lands cleared of Isil.”
Another MP, Ammar Toma, said the US appeared to be prioritising Kurds over Arabs. “We are glad that the allied forces are helping out the Kurds in combating Isil but we resent that they show less attention to Arabs fighting against Isil, whether Sunnis or Shia,” he said.
The air strikes that were supposed to help have dried up, as they have risen in Syria. Mr Barry, who analysed the state of the war for the International Institute of Strategic Studies, said strikes in Syria were running at twice the rate of those in Iraq, despite the insistence that the latter was the prime strategic target.
His analysis said that on the ground only half the brigades of the Iraqi army were battle-worthy.
But to retrain them would mean withdrawing them from the front lines, where they were needed.
The Americans were facing one of the toughest challenges of modern times in Iraq, he said – compared with the easy win of hitting Isil in Kobane. “My suspicion is that the CNN factor is at play here,” he said.
The Americans would claim – perhaps rightly – that it is important to match propaganda with propaganda, and that losing Kobane now would be a disastrous blow to morale.
It is that town that the West now wants to win. Iraq will have to wait – if it can.