A possible U.S. mission to evacuate Yazidis trapped on Iraq's Mount Sinjar after they fled extremist Sunni militant fighters is unlikely to take place, following an assessment of the situation by a U.S. team, American military officials said.
A small contingent of U.S. military advisers landed on Mount Sinjar early Wednesday.
"The team assessed 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."
Fewer than 20 U.S. personnel flew in darkness early in the morning to the mountain, made their assessment, and returned safely to the Kurdistan capital of Irbil by military air transport.
The interagency assessment team included members of the U.S. Agency for International Development.
While the United States will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed, an evacuation mission to rescue thousands of the Yazidi religious minorities trapped on the mountain is "far less likely," the Pentagon statement said.
Earlier Wednesday, a key U.S. national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, had said President Barack Obama would decide within days whether to send American military troops to help the Iraqi civilians, including Christians and members of the Yazidi religious sect.
They had fled brutal militants in the Islamic State group, who’d threatened to kill them unless they converted to Islam.
On Tuesday, the U.S. deployed another 129 military advisers to assess the situation on Mount Sinjar and elsewhere in northern Iraq.
"Our goal here is to work with the Iraqis and with international partners so that these people can get off that mountain and to a safer place," Rhodes said during a daily White House briefing, conducted in Edgartown, Massachusetts, where the president is vacationing with his family.
"Again, we don’t believe that that involves U.S. troops re-entering a combat role in Iraq."
Obama has pledged that American troops, which he ordered withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, will not return to ground action in the current crisis.
Last week, however, the U.S. leader authorized airstrikes against Islamic State fighters near Sinjar, with the attacks giving Kurdish fighters time to rescue more than 20,000 of those stranded on the mountain.
U.S. planes have been carrying out airdrops to get supplies to the refugees.
The military said late Tuesday it had conducted a sixth set of airdrops containing food and water, bringing the total amount of aid delivered so far to 100,000 meals and 27,000 gallons of water.
Other allies assist
Earlier this week, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region, asked the international community for help fighting the militants. The European Union failed to agree on a deal to supply weapons but said individual countries were free to make their own deals with Iraq.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister David Cameron said an international plan is being developed to rescue the refugees. He cut short his vacation in Portugal Wednesday to return to London to meet with advisers on the humanitarian crisis.
Cameron rejected demands by some British lawmakers to intervene militarily in Iraq. But he said Britain would play a role in the rescue plan, just as it already has with the United States in dropping food and water to the marooned refugees, some of whom have died in the extreme heat.
"I can confirm that detailed plans are now being put in place and are underway and that Britain will play a role in delivering them," Cameron said.
Also Wednesday, French President Francois Hollande's office said arms would be delivered in a matter of hours to Kurdish forces, with the coordination of the Iraqi government.
Maliki digs in
Meanwhile, Iraq's incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he will not give up power until a federal court rules on President Fouad Massoum's decision to appoint Haider al-Abadi to take over the leadership post.
Maliki said during his weekly address Wednesday that Abadi's appointment to replace him violated the constitution and "had no value."
Maliki's critics accuse him of marginalizing Iraq's minorities.
He has been trying to extend his eight-year rule for a third term as Iraq moves to form a new government, but he has lost the support of the international community.
On Wednesday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lent his support to Abadi, the clearest sign yet that Tehran was no longer standing by Maliki.
"I hope the designation of the new prime minister in Iraq will untie the knot and lead to the establishment of a new government and teach a good lesson to those who aim for sedition in Iraq,” Khamenei said during a meeting, according to a statement on his website.
Abadi has won swift endorsements from the United States and Iran as he called on political leaders to end feuds that have allowed Islamist militants to seize a third of Iraq.