EDGARTOWN, Mass. (AP) — President Barack Obama is considering a range of military options, including airlifts and creating safe passages, for rescuing thousands of Iraqi refugees trapped on a mountain, and is expected to make a decision in days, the White House said Wednesday.
Deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said that while the U.S. has been delivering food and water to the refugees, it was unsustainable to let the refugees remain on the mountain.
“There needs to be a lasting solution that gets that population to a safe space where they can receive more permanent assistance,” Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president during his vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard.
The Pentagon sent 129 U.S. troops to Iraq on Tuesday to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis and the options for getting them safely off the mountain. Rhodes said that given the urgency of the situation, Obama was expected to receive their final recommendations quickly and make a final decision within days.
Thousands of Iraqi religious minorities sought refuge on Sinjar Mountain after militants from the Islamic State group swept through their village in northern Iraq. In addition to the humanitarian aid drops, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes against Islamic State targets, both to protect American personnel in the region and stop the militants from moving on the civilians again.
Obama has ruled out sending combat troops back into Iraq more than 2 1/2 years after the last U.S. troops withdrew from a war in which nearly 4,500 Americans died.
A U.S. military-led rescue mission on Sinjar Mountain would almost certainly put American troops in harm’s way. But Rhodes insisted that their mission would be strictly a humanitarian rescue and would not constitute a return to combat.
“We don’t believe that involves U.S. troops re-entering a combat role in Iraq,” he said. “It involves frankly a very difficult logistical challenge of moving folks who are in danger on that mountain into a safer position.”
Rhodes suggested the U.S. would undertake a rescue mission with help from allies, including Kurdish forces that are receiving arms from the U.S., and the British.
British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed Wednesday that his country stood ready to assist with that effort.
“We need a plan to get these people off that mountain and get them to a place of safety,” he said. “Detailed plans are now being put in place and are underway and that Britain will play a role in delivering them.”
The British military has joined the U.S. in delivering supplies to the mountain in recent days. Rhodes noted that there have been offers of humanitarian assistance from France, Canada and Australia.
The White House has not said specifically how many people they believe to be on the mountain, though estimates range in the tens of thousands. Rhodes said several thousand have escaped, but the U.S. is seeking a more firm estimate from the assessment team now on the ground.
The Pentagon said the assessment team was transported to the mountain by a small number of V-22 Osprey aircraft from Irbil, capital of the largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.
The assessment team joins 90 U.S. military advisers already in Baghdad and 160 in a pair of operations centers — one in Irbil, capital of the largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, and one in Baghdad, the central government’s capital — 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.