US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel attends an Aug. 11 wreath laying ceremony at the ANZAC War Memorial in Sydney. (Lisa Maree Williams / AFP)
SYDNEY — Air strikes aimed at halting the advance of Sunni Islamic State militants in Iraq have been effective and the US is open to further requests for help, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Monday.
The United States has conducted three days of attacks by jets and drones on jihadists in northern Iraq whose onslaught has displaced 200,000 people since August 3, including all the residents of Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh.
Hagel said Washington was constantly assessing the situation after President Barack Obama authorized the action to help break the siege of Mount Sinjar, where thousands of civilian refugees from the Yazidi religious minority had been trapped.
“They have been very effective from all the reports we have received on the ground,” he said of the air strikes when asked in Sydney, where he is attending annual Australia-US defense talks.
“We are constantly assessing where we can continue to assist Iraqi security forces and where, as we build partnerships, we will work with the Iraqi government.
“The Iraqi government requested our help and assistance and we will continue to consider further requests from the Iraqi government,” he added.
US military planes have also been dropping food and water for civilians besieged by jihadists, with France and Britain on Sunday joining the desperate race to save them from starvation.
“Many of you know that President Obama spoke yesterday with French President Hollande and British Prime Minister Cameron and they too offered assistance,” said Hagel.
“We are coordinating a group of partners to assist in this effort.
“This is a humanitarian issue of great consequence for all over the world and I think great powers understand they have great responsibilities in this.”
Australian Defence Minister David Johnston said Australia’s help was currently focused on humanitarian relief and refused to speculate on the possibility of providing combat assistance.
“At this stage, we think that that is a considerable contribution,” he told a joint press conference with Hagel, with Australia likely to join airdrops of supplies later this week.
“We don’t telegraph our punches in any way shape or form and there has been no request for us to participate in combat.
“The situation for us at the moment is we are committed to helping the Americans and our friends who will join the Americans in providing humanitarian and disaster relief.
“Now what the future holds in what is clearly a very troubled, confused and difficult situation in Iraq, anybody can guess.”