Rescue mission for Yazidis on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar appears unnecessary, Pentagon says
A team of about 20 U.S. troops and aid workers who landed Wednesday on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar determined that a rescue operation of besieged minorities stranded there is probably unnecessary, the Pentagon said.
“There are far fewer” refugees left at the northern Iraq location, where tens of thousands were said to have been surrounded by Sunni Muslim extremists, and they “are in better condition than previously believed,” a Pentagon statement said. It said that humanitarian airdrops and the nightly evacuation of Yazidis on land routes appeared to have lessened the emergency.
However, Kurdish officials and Yazidi refugees said Thursday thatthousands of desperate Yazidis remain trapped on the mountain. They said those still stranded on the barren, rocky slopes of Mount Sinjar are mostly the elderly, sick and very young, who were too weak to continue the grueling trek to safety in Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region and were left behind by their relatives.
U.S. officials credited U.S. airstrikes on militant positions surrounding the mountains with allowing thousands to exit. “President said we’re going to break the siege of this mountain, and we broke that siege,” Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk said on Twitter.
The Obama administration had been weighing the use of U.S. ground forces and aircraft to mount an emergency rescue of the members of the Yazidi minority sect, even as it seeks to develop a longer-term strategy to push back advances made by Sunni Muslim extremists.
That strategy depends on the formation of a new Iraqi government that is responsive to the concerns of all ethnic and religious groups, an effort that continued its rocky progress Wednesday.
But the strategy also hinges on other variables, including the capabilities of both Iraqi and Kurdish troops, and their capacity to cooperate on the ground. European and other allies are being enlisted to provide weapons and other support, and neighboring Sunni states must be persuaded to use their influence with Iraqi Sunnis who have been reluctant to join the fight against Islamic State militants.
Once a new government is in place, “we will be providing training and equipping, security assistance and advice to Iraqi and Kurdish forces, and then we can begin to squeeze the space where ISIL is operating and start to push them back,” deputy national security adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes said, referring to the group also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The one “limiting factor,” he said, “is we don’t want to be reintroducing U.S. forces into a combat role on the ground.” Rhodes spoke to reporters in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where President Obama is vacationing.
An expansion of U.S. military assistance to counter the Islamic State would almost certainly include the deployment of additional military advisers to Iraq, increased weapons transfers and possibly expanded airstrikes, although Pentagon officials said Wednesday that they have yet to reach a consensus on what such a mix would look like.
The departure of current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will not by itself trigger an influx of military aid or more U.S. trainers, said senior Defense Department officials who were not authorized to discuss internal planning. Instead, the administration is expected to wait until a new government demonstrates clear signs of support from Iraq’s many political and religious factions.
In the meantime, Obama last week authorized the U.S. military to carry out airstrikes on a highly restricted basis — only to prevent the massacre of Iraqi minorities or to neutralize threats to U.S. personnel or property. Defense officials said they do not have clearance, for instance, to target individual Islamic State leaders.