U.S. decides against rescue of Yazidis with 'far fewer' stranded than thought
WASHINGTON — The American military has concluded that too few Yazidi refugees remain trapped in the mountains of northern Iraq to warrant mounting a potentially risky rescue, the Pentagon said late on Wednesday.
Military advisers who visited the Sinjar mountains, where as many as 30,000 people were thought to remain trapped, said that they found “far fewer” Yazidis than expected and that those who were there were in better condition than anticipated. Food and water dropped in recent days have reached those who remain, the Pentagon statement said.
The United States sent four V22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to the northern Iraqi city of Irbil. Ospreys are commonly used by the Marine Corps and Special Operations, and one made a dramatic appearance, firing off anti-missile flares as it descended into the airport here, McClatchy Newspapers reported.
A team of Marines then joined a small number of American Special Forces who had been on the mountain for some days, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper.
A handful of SAS, British special forces, were also in the area to “gather intelligence,” a British official told the Guardian. The developments were the first confirmation that international troops were on Mt. Sinjar.
The Pentagon said the visit to Mt. Sinjar proved that the actions the United States had taken in recent days had succeeded in preventing Islamic State terrorists from capturing and executing the Yazidis, members of a religious sect that Sunni extremists view as heretics.
It said the assessment team encountered no hostile forces during its visit and “did not engage in combat operations.”
“The team has assessed that there far fewer Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of the humanitarian air drops, airstrikes on (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) targets, the efforts of the (Kurdish) peshmerga and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days,” the statement said. “The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water we have dropped.”
A Pentagon official said that the Yazidis in the mountains might number as few as 3,000, which would contradict a U.N. estimate of as many as 30,000 still stranded.
Therefore, the Pentagon statement concluded, “Based on this assessment, the interagency (sic) has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely.”
The decision that no rescue mission is required now will not affect other U.S. military operations intended to blunt the Islamic State's ability to engage Kurdish militia near Irbil, where the U.S. maintains a consulate, a CIA station and a joint military operations center.
The statement was an anticlimax after a day in which European countries offered resources to help rescue the Yazidis from the Islamic State terrorist group. French President Francois Hollande said that his country would send arms to the Kurdish peshmerga “within hours.” And Obama administration officials suggested a rescue mission was in the offing.
Meanwhile, Iraq's central government in Baghdad seems stuck in political turmoil.
A wavering Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Wednesday said he will not relinquish power until a federal court rules on what he called a “constitutional violation” by President Fouad Massoum. “Holding on (to the premiership) is an ethical and patriotic duty to defend the rights of voters,” al-Maliki said in his weekly address to the nation.
The president has nominated a Shiite politician, Haider al-Abadi, to form the next government, putting him on track to replace Maliki, who has grown increasingly isolated, with Iraqi politicians and much of the international community lining up behind al-Abadi.
In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed hope that “a government will be formed so that they (Iraqis) can give the necessary and appropriate response to the sedition-makers.”
The Associated Presscontributed to this report.