WASHINGTON — Defense officials said late Wednesday that U.S. airstrikes and Kurdish fighters had broken the siege on Mount Sinjar, allowing thousands of the Yazidis trapped there to escape.
An initial report from about a dozen Marines and special operations forces who had spent the last 24 hours on the northern Iraqi mountain said that “the situation is much more manageable,” a senior defense official said in an interview. “A rescue effort now is much more unlikely,” the official said.
Defense officials could not say how many Yazidis remained on the mountain, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was expected to make a statement later Wednesday night.
The announcement came after U.S. military advisers landed on Mount Sinjar early Wednesday to begin assessing how to organize the evacuation. The United States had said it would consider using ground troops to assist in the rescue if recommended by the military team.
Mr. Hagel said it was “far less likely now” that the United States would undertake a rescue mission because the assessment team reported far fewer refugees than previously thought, and that those still on the mountain were in relatively good condition.
Several thousand Yazidis remain on the mountain, a senior U.S. official said, but not the tens of thousands who originally were believed to be there. Some of the people who remain on Mount Sinjar indicated to U.S. forces that they considered the mountain to be a place of refuge and a home, and did not want to leave, a second U.S. official said. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the issue.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement that “the team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of the humanitarian airdrops.” He credited U.S. airstrikes as well as the “efforts of the [Kurdish militia force] peshmerga and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days,” Defense officials said the evacuations were done in secret with the help of the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
The latest twist came just hours after Benjamin J. Rhodes, deputy national security adviser told reporters in Martha’s Vineyard, where President Barack Obama is vacation, that the president was likely to receive recommendations about how to mount a rescue operation in the next several days. He said those recommendations could have included the use of U.S. ground troops. But Mr. Rhodes made those comments as the secret team of Marines and special operations forces were already on the ground on Mount Sinjar in the middle of a 24-hour trip to talk to the refugees and peshmerga fighters on the mountain.
Earlier Wednesday, France, Britain and Germany all said they would increase their efforts to aid the people stranded on the mountain— where reports indicated that the Yazidis were baking in the heat and near starvation — and to fight militants from the Islamic State group.
For Mr. Obama, who has been reluctant to commit additional U.S. ground troops to Iraq, the report was welcome news. Mr. Obama had maintained — even when announcing that he had authorized airstrikes to help break the siege — that he would not be sending U.S. combat troops to the country they left in 2011. But as reports from Mount Sinjar became increasingly dire, amid video images of the suffering Yazidis, the president found himself weighing a host of options for mounting a rescue operation.
The leading option before the siege was broken was to rescue the Yazidis with a combination of ground troops — mostly Kurdish peshmerga, but with help from U.S. special operations forces and Marines. The United States was also discussing using airlifts that could include American V-22 Ospreys, which are hybrid aircraft that can take off and land like helicopters but which, once in the air, have the speed and range of propeller planessyria - United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Europe - Barack Obama - France - Western Europe - Chuck Hagel - U.S. Department of Defense - Iraq - United Kingdom - Germany - David Cameron - Bashar Assad - Steffen Seibert - John Kirby - U.S. Marine Corps