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US Weighs Operation to Aid Yazidis in Iraq Mountains

  • Reuters

Yazidi children, fleeing violence from Islamic State militants Sinjar, Iraq, head toward the town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate, near the Syrian border, Aug. 10, 2014.

Yazidi children, fleeing violence from Islamic State militants Sinjar, Iraq, head toward the town of Elierbeh of Al-Hasakah Governorate, near the Syrian border, Aug. 10, 2014.

After three days of airstrikes on Islamist militants threatening northern Iraq, the United States has "blunted" their advanced but "not contained or broken the momentum," a senior Pentagon official said Monday.

Lt. Gen. William Mayville Jr., the Joint Chiefs of Staff operations director, said the targeted U.S. raids on the Islamic State group "have reduced the threats" to Kurdish troops defending the northeastern city of Irbil, to American diplomatic personnel and military advisers stationed there, and to Iraqi religious minorities stranded on Mount Sinjar.

But, Mayville conceded in a news conference at the Pentagon, the raids on the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant likely will have “a temporary effect. … What I expect the ISIL to do is to pick up and move. … I in no way want to suggest we’ve contained or broken the momentum.”

Mayville said there were no plans to expand the U.S. air campaign beyond defensive measures.

The United States also has been been conducting airdrops of humanitarian aid -- food, water and blankets -- to the thousands of Yazidi refugees on Sinjar’s slopes, Mayville said.

Iraqi's air force began evacuating some refugees Monday, CNN showed.

Proposals for a risky mission to save the group underscore the limits of the airdrops, ordered last week by President Barack Obama.

“We're reviewing options for removing the remaining civilians off the mountain,” deputy U.S. national security adviser Ben Rhodes told Reuters on Sunday.

Asked Monday whether any plans for a rescue mission had crystalized, Mayville said Iraq, the United States and its allies needed "a better understanding of what’s going on up there." He noted Kurdish, British and French forces all were helping.

Meanwhile, U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Rajiv Shah announced Monday that USAID would be sending a disaster assistance response team to Iraq.

“To help manage and coordinate the U.S. government’s humanitarian aid effort and responding to the request of Ambassador Beecroft, I am deploying a Disaster Assistance Response Team to Iraq," Shah said in a statement. "This team will work closely with local officials, the international community, and humanitarian relief agencies to identify needs and expedite life-saving assistance to those caught in the midst of violence."

Humanitarian corridor considered

The U.N. mission in Iraq has also said it is preparing a humanitarian corridor to permit the Yazidis to flee to safety.

The group are followers of an ancient religion derived from Zoroastrianism. They are viewed as “devil worshippers” by the Sunni militants of Islamic State who tell them to convert to Islam or face death.

More than 30,000 Yazidis, mainly from Sinjar, have already crossed into an area of northern Iraq controlled by Kurdish security forces after a weeklong journey that took them through Syria after they left the mountain retreat that had become a graveyard for many, according to Yazidis and U.N. officials.

Yet any mission to evacuate the remaining Yazidis from the mountain is likely to be perilous, and could test Obama's pledge to limit U.S. involvement in Iraq's latest chaos.

“That's going to be a very big operation,' said Ken Pollack, a former CIA and White House expert on the region, now at the private Brookings Institution. “They can't stay on the mountain. They have to leave.”

On Sunday night, four U.S. cargo aircraft dropped food and water in the latest delivery, the U.S. military's Central Command said in a statement.

U.S. forces have dropped a total of more than 74,000 meals and more than 15,000 gallons of fresh drinking water so far to those trapped on the arid mountain.

Militants advance

Islamic State militants have seized large swathes of northern Iraq since June, breaking out of their original operating areas in nearby Syria.

Rhodes said the airdrops have been effective, and noted that U.S. aircraft have also attacked Islamic State fighters who have laid siege to the Sinjar mountain range.

Still, the plight of the Yazidis, which prompted a reluctant Obama to intervene militarily in Iraq last week, remains acute.

“They are in dire need of everything. Food, water, non-food items, hygiene and sanitation,” said Eliana Nabaa, spokesperson for the U.N. mission in Iraq.

Pollack said there are just two options for securing safe passage for the Yazidis off the mountain.

One, he said, is for U.N. representatives to convince Islamic State fighters to let them go or be pummeled by American airstrikes. The second is a corridor secured by peshmerga or Iraq army troops and U.S. airpower.

To establish a humanitarian corridor, the United Nations and any nations that participated would have to overcome the Islamic State group's military advantage over Kurdish security forces, the peshmerga.

“Security would have to be provided by the Iraqis, especially the Kurds, with air cover from the U.S. and possibly the British and the French,” a U.N. official said on condition of anonymity.

No combat troops

Obama has insisted that he will not send U.S. combat troops back to Iraq, saying the U.S. military response will be limited to protecting the Yazidis and the Kurdish city of Irbil, where numerous U.S. advisers are present.

For now, many Yazidis appear to prefer contending with the Sinjar mountains than taking their chance with Islamic State fighters.

Iraqi Human Rights Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani said on Sunday Islamic State fighters killed hundreds of Yazidis after seizing Sinjar, burying some alive and taking women as slaves.

Fred Hof, a former senior State Department official now at the Atlantic Council, said the U.S. strikes could help by enabling the peshmerga, who have suffered recent defeats at Islamic State hands, to regain the advantage.

“The key to rescuing tens of thousands of Yazidis is for the peshmerga - with tactical air support from U.S. Naval Aviation and Air Force assets - to clear the Sinjar area of (Islamic State) fighters and make it possible to rescue and resettle these terrified people and allow truck loads of emergency humanitarian aid to reach them,” he said.

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