Pentagon: U.S. Ground Op to Rescue Iraq's Yazidi Refugees Unlikely

U.S. team in Iraq assesses that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar than feared, and that they are in better condition than previously believed.

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Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border, August 13, 2014.
Displaced Iraqi families from the Yazidi community cross the Iraqi-Syrian border, August 13, 2014.Credit: AFP

A possible U.S. mission to evacuate Yazidis trapped on Iraq's Mount Sinjar after they fled Islamic State fighters is now unlikely to take place, following the assessment of a U.S. team, the Pentagon said on Wednesday.

"The team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar than previously feared," the Pentagon said in a statement. "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.

"Based on this assessment the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely," the statement said, adding that the United States would continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed.

Earlier, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the United States would consider sending in ground troops to help Iraq rescue Yazidi refugees if U.S. military advisers recommend it.

Speaking to the press in Martha’s Vineyard, where President Barack Obama is on vacation, Rhodes clarified, however, that ground troops would only be used for the humanitarian mission of helping the Yazidis, not in fighting Islamic State militants – something Obama is opposed to. “What he’s ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” the NYT cited Rhodes as saying.

Another 130 U.S. troops arrived in Iraq on Tuesday on what the Pentagon described as a temporary mission to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis facing thousands of displaced Yazidis, and evaluate options for getting them out to safety.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced the deployment in remarks to Marines at this Southern California base on the final stop of a weeklong, around-the-world trip that also took him to India, Germany and Australia.

"This is not a combat boots on the ground kind of operation," Hagel said. "We're not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat mission dimensions that we once were in in Iraq," he added, referring to the eight-year war that cost more than 4,400 U.S. lives and soured the American public on military involvement in Iraq. Hagel referred to the 130 troops as "assessors."

Another defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to provide additional details on the sensitive mission, said the extra troops were Marines and special operations forces whose mission was to assess the situation in the Sinjar area and to develop additional humanitarian assistance options beyond current U.S. efforts there.

Still another official said the mission for the 130 troops could last less than one week. That official also said that while the troops were not being sent in to execute some type of rescue mission of the Yazidis on the mountain, they would assess the feasibility of a rescue or what one might look like. The also would assist in the ongoing effort to evaluate the use of airstrikes as part of the mission to protect the Yazidis from attacks by the Islamic State militants.

The additional troops arrived Tuesday in the city of Irbil, well east of Sinjar. They were to work with representatives of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to coordinate plans with international partners and non-government organizations to help the trapped Yazidi civilians on Sinjar Mountain.

"They will make a very rapid and critical assessment because we understand it's urgent to try to move those people off the mountain," Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters traveling with him in Honiara, Solomon Islands.

The 130 were in addition to 90 U.S. military advisers already in Baghdad and 160 in a pair of operations centers — one in Irbil and one in Baghdad — working with Iraqi security forces. They were in addition to about 455 U.S. security forces and 100 military personnel working in the Office of Security Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to the report.

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