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)
WASHINGTON — A small party of US troops was flown onto Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq on Wednesday for the first time to assess the situation of thousands of civilian refugees besieged by Islamist militants, the Pentagon said.
A US military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the Special Forces soldiers had returned safely to base. “They had contacts with the refugees. They went back to Arbil,” he said.
The United States has a consulate and other facilities in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, and earlier Wednesday had deployed around 130 troops on an assessment mission.
Militants from the so-called Islamic State, a jihadist group that controls a large swathe of northern Iraq and eastern Syria, has attacked the region’s Yazidi religious minority and threatened to march on the city.
Last week, President Barack Obama authorized air strikes to protect Yazidi refugees and US personnel in Arbil, but he has insisted that US “combat troops” will not return to war in the unstable nation.
Nevertheless, Washington has boosted its military advisers on the ground in Iraq and Wednesday’s mission to Sinjar briefly put US boots on the ground on an exposed mountain surrounded by hostile forces.
Iraqi helicopters and Kurdish troops have been trying to come to the aid of the besieged Yazidis, and Washington and its allies have been studying ways to airlift them off Sinjar or open a humanitarian corridor.
Also on Wednesday, a US drone launched a missile to destroy an Islamic State armed truck to the west of the mountain, the latest in a series of air strikes by drones and fighter jets since Friday.