WASHINGTON — The United States military has concluded that there are too few Yazidi refugees still trapped in the mountains of northern Iraq to warrant mounting a potentially risky rescue, the Pentagon said late Wednesday.
Military advisers who earlier in the day visited the Sinjar mountains, where as many as 30,000 people were thought to still be 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 Pentagon said the visit proved that the actions the United States had taken in recent days had succeeded in preventing the Islamic State 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.”
Brett McGurk, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Near East Affairs, said the assessment team had spent 24 hours in the mountains. He declared via Twitter that the U.S. actions had “broken the siege,” a sentiment repeated by State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf: “President said we’re going to break the siege of this mountain, and we broke that siege.”
But in declaring success, the Pentagon did not offer any figure for the number of Yazidis who had died in the mountains or say what had become of Islamic State forces that had controlled all the approaches to the area and still occupy the cities of Sinjar and Zummar nearby, where they reportedly have carried out executions of Yazidi men, forced marriages of Yazidi women and kidnapping of children. The United Nations has reported that tens of thousands of refugees have flooded other cities in the region.
“The team has assessed that there far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of the humanitarian air drops, airstrikes on ISIL targets, the efforts of the 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.”
The statement concluded, “Based on this assessment, the interagency (sic) has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely.”
It added, “We will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed and will protect U.S. personnel and facilities.”
The statement was an anticlimax after a daylong buildup that saw European countries offering resources to help rescue the Yazidis from the Islamic State, the al-Qaida-inspired quasi-state that now controls much of Iraq and Syria.
Obama administration officials earlier in the day had suggested a rescue mission was in the offing.
“We would be the first to acknowledge that’s not a permanent solution, just dropping food and water in perpetuity from the air,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, told reporters. Among options Rhodes said were under consideration was establishing protected corridors that would allow Yazidis to escape the mountain without facing Islamic State forces dedicated to their extermination. Rhodes said the possibility of airlifting some of the Yazidis was also being considered.
“You look at corridors, you look at airlifts, you look at different ways to move people who are in a very dangerous place on that mountain to a safer position, and that’s exactly what our team is doing now on the ground now in Iraq,” Rhodes said.
The United States sent four V22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft to Irbil, commonly used by the Marine Corps and special operations troops, and one made a dramatic appearance, firing off anti-missile flares as it descended into the airport here.
But the report from the U.S. military who visited suggested that a U.N. estimate Tuesday that as many as 20,000 to 30,000 Yazidis remained stranded was inaccurate. A Pentagon official said that the Yazidis still in the mountains might number as few as 3,000. On Tuesday, the U.N. said 35,000 Yazidis had fled the mountain in the previous three days.
The United States has dropped nearly 100,000 military meals-ready-to-eat and more than 27,000 gallons of water in seven air drops in the six days since Obama announced the mission. In recent days, Great Britain also began making aid deliveries. On Wednesday, Prime Minister David Cameron’s office announced that two British C-130s had dropped 23 tons of aid overnight, including 13,200 liters of water, almost 3,500 gallons, and “528 shelter kits to provide shade.”
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 Pentagon announced that it had conducted a total of 24 airstrikes on Islamic State targets since Friday.
It also said that the United States reversed an earlier policy of providing only limited military supplies to the Kurdish peshmerga militia. American military officials said Wednesday that the U.S. will now supply Kurdish fighters directly with advanced anti-tank weapons needed against the Islamic State’s large supply of armored vehicles, captured from the Syrian and Iraqi militaries in fighting over the last six months. Previously, the U.S. had provided to the Kurds only small arms and ammunition through the CIA.
The United Kingdom, France and Australia all announced varying degrees of support for the Kurdish and Iraqi efforts to regain control over much of northern and central Iraq, as well as help for the hundreds of thousands of people internally displaced by fighting. France said it would provide weapons directly to the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, and Britain said it would use its air force to transport small arms and ammunition stocks from an unnamed former Warsaw pact country — most Kurdish weapons are of Soviet-era design.
Britain already had announced that it has sent a small number of Chinook heavy lift double-rotor helicopters to assist in the Yazidi rescue operation. It was not clear whether those helicopters would be withdrawn.
Contributing to this report were McClatchy special correspondent Mitchell Prothero in Irbil, Iraq, and James Rosen in Washington.