Displaced Iraqi Yazidis, who fled a jihadist onslaught on Sinjar, gather Aug. 13 to collect bottles of water at the Bajid Kandala camp in Kurdistan's western Dohuk province. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP)
Crisis in Iraq
WASHINGTON — A review by US troops of conditions on Iraq’s Mount Sinjar Wednesday has determined that the conditions of a religious minority seeking refuge there are better than believed and may not require a US-led evacuation, a Pentagon official said.
The team of fewer than 20 US troops “has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of humanitarian air drops, air strikes on ISIL targets, the efforts of the Peshmerga and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days,” said Rear Adm. John Kirby, spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
“The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped,” Kirby said. “Based on this assessment the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely. Additionally, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed and will protect US personnel and facilities.”
The US troops had traveled by air to Mount Sinjar and then returned safely to the Iraqi city of Irbil by military aircraft.
The troops and other military advisers were on the mountain to “make recommendations about how to follow through on an effort to get the people off that mountain and into a safe place,” National Security Council spokesman Ben Rhodes said. That could involve the use of troops, he said.
The British are assisting with this effort as well as the Iraqis, Rhodes said. Options include airlifts or creation of a safe corridor off the mountain, officials said.
Rhodes stressed that using ground troops to assist in an evacuation was not the same as reintroducing US forces in “a combat role.”
Rhodes added: “There are a range of ways for doing that. We haven’t made decisions about how to carry out that vision because we want to get the readout from this assessment team first.”
Rhodes said President Obama expects recommendations “in a matter of days.”
France weighed in Wednesday, saying it will send arms to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq in response to the Kurds’ “urgent need” for support against militant radicals of the Islamic State. The French presidency said in a statement that the arms shipment has the blessing of the Shiite-controlled government in Baghdad.
More European help is also possible. A high-level EU diplomatic meeting late Tuesday ended with a statement that it would consider the Kurdish request for urgent military support “in close coordination with Iraqi authorities.”
The plight of the refugees in a Kurdish-controlled region of the Sinjar Mountains prompted Obama to order both airstrikes against the Islamic State militants and humanitarian airdrops there last week. In an interview with USA Today on Tuesday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military’s effort there could take months but will be limited.
Martin added that the effect of the airstrikes had blunted the momentum of the militant group, and shipping heavier arms to Kurdish allies will help solidify the gains.
The survival of the refugees has been assured for now, Dempsey said, but their fate and rolling back the gains the Islamic State has made — such as seizing the city of Mosul — will require the new Iraqi government to reach out to Sunnis and Kurds.
“The crisis has been abated but not solved,” Dempsey said.
The militant advance has slowed as it approaches Baghdad and other majority Shiite areas, but the capital still sees attacks almost every day.
On Wednesday, attacks in and near Baghdad killed at least 29 people and wounded scores more, police said. In the largest attacks, a car bomb in eastern New Baghdad killed eight while six people, including four police officers, died when a car bomb struck a checkpoint in western Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned that the Iraqi president’s selection of another member of al-Maliki’s Shiite party to form a new government amounts to a “constitutional violation” and would have worse consequences than the militants’ advances.
He also said he will not relinquish power until a federal court rules on the move, which was aimed at paving the way for new leadership more willing to build a government more inclusive of Sunnis and other minorities in this Shiite-majority nation of more than 32 million people.
“This constitutional violation ... will be yield more damage than of the state collapse that took place in Ninevah,” al-Maliki said during his weekly address Wednesday, referring to the northern province that includes Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul.
Al-Maliki has vowed legal action against President Fouad Massoum for carrying out “a coup against the constitution and the political process.”
Jackson, Michaels and Bacon writer for USA Today. Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook; the Associated Press