US says rescue mission for Iraq's Yazidis less likely after visit
A US mission to evacuate Iraqi civilians trapped on a mountain by Sunni militant fighters is far less likely after a US assessment team sent there found the humanitarian situation not as grave as expected, the Pentagon said.
A team of US military and humanitarian aid personnel sent to Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq to assess the situation of thousand of members of the Yazidi religious minority found far fewer people than previously feared and in better condition than expected, the Pentagon said in a statement.
"Based on this assessment," the Pentagon said, "an evacuation mission is far less likely."
The Pentagon credited the better-than-expected situation on air drops of food and water, US airstrikes on Sunni militant targets, efforts of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate the mountain in recent nights.
The White House said earlier the United States had not ruled out using American ground forces in an operation to extract the trapped civilians, but added the troops would not engage in combat.
The team of fewer than 20 US personnel flew in darkness early in the morning to Mount Sinjar, where thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority fled to escape an advance by Islamic State fighters, a US official said. The team returned safely to the Kurdistan capital of Arbil by military air.
The United States has 130 US military personnel in Arbil, drawing up options ranging from creating a safe corridor to an airlift to rescue those besieged on Mount Sinjar for over a week, most of them Yazidis.
"These 130 personnel are not going to be in a combat role in Iraq," White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with President Barack Obama, who is on vacation on Martha's Vineyard island in Massachusetts.
Rhodes noted that Obama had repeatedly ruled out "reintroducing US forces into combat on the ground in Iraq." But he added: "There are a variety of ways in which we can support the safe removal of those people from the mountain."
Rhodes said the intention was to work with Kurdish forces already operating in the region and with the Iraqi military.
Kurdish fighters had been guarding Yazidi towns when armed Islamic State convoys swept in, and have already helped many thousands escape to safe areas to the north.
UN agencies have rushed emergency supplies to the Dohuk region by the Syrian and Turkish borders, where the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees says about 400,000 refugees have fled, including Yazidis, Christians and other minorities.
The Pentagon said the team of 130 in Arbil, assembled there on Tuesday from different places in the region, had at their disposal four V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which can land and take off vertically.
It was unclear whether there was consideration being given to using the Ospreys for airlifting any of the Yazidis out, but each one would only be able to carry a couple of dozen people.