Yazidi rescue mission in Iraq on hold: US

"Far fewer" Yazidis are stranded on Iraq's Mount Sinjar than previously thought, the US says after troops landed on the mountain to assess the situation.

iraq chopper.jpg

A screenshot provided on 13 August 2014 taken from a video by Austrian Politician Michel Reimon shows Iraqi Yazidi refugees gathering near a helicopter in northern Iraq, 10 August 2014. Reimon of the Austrian Green Party took part in a helicopter aid flight in northern Iraq, 10 August 2014, where thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority remain stranded in the mountains outside the town of Sinjar, which the Islamic State group captured earlier this month. (EPA/MICHEL REIMON) Source: SBS

The US says its troops have found "far fewer" Yazidi refugees marooned on a northern Iraqi mountain than expected, making an evacuation mission less likely, after air strikes pummelled besieging Islamic militants.

The UN refugee agency has said tens of thousands of civilians, many of them members of the Yazidi religious minority, remain trapped on Mount Sinjar by jihadists from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIL (also known as ISIS and Islamic State), which has overrun large swathes of Iraq and Syria in a lightning and brutal offensive.

But the Pentagon said on Wednesday, based on a first-hand assessment by a small party of US troops, the plight of those on the mountain was better than feared, and an evacuation mission "is far less likely".

A US military official said the special forces soldiers had returned safely to base at Erbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said the troops, which consisted of fewer than 20 personnel, did not engage in any combat.

"The team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of humanitarian air drops, air strikes on ISIL targets, the efforts of the [Kurdish] Peshmerga and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days.

"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."

Iraqi helicopters and Kurdish troops have been trying to come to the aid of the Yazidi religious minority, and Washington and its allies have been studying ways to airlift them off Sinjar or open a humanitarian corridor.

Various countries are ramping up their efforts to aid the trapped civilians and Kurdish forces battling the militants, and the US has launched a series of air strikes since Friday.

Thousands of people have poured across a border bridge into camps in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region after trekking through neighbouring Syria to find refuge, most with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Some women carried exhausted children, weeping as they reached the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan.

But large numbers of people, including the most vulnerable, remain trapped on Mount Sinjar, said Mahmud Bakr, 45.

"My father Khalaf is 70 years old - he cannot make this journey," he said as he crossed back into Iraq.

For those who managed to escape the siege, the relief of reaching relative safety was tempered by the spartan conditions of the camps hurriedly erected by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities to accommodate them.

"We were besieged for 10 days in the mountain. The whole world is talking about us, but we did not get any real help," said Khodr Hussein. "We went from hunger in Sinjar to hunger in this camp."

As the international outcry over the plight of the Yazidis mounted, Western governments pledged to step up help for those still trapped, and the United Nations declared a Level 3 emergency in Iraq, allowing it to speed up its response.

The US said on Wednesday it had conducted a seventh airdrop of food and water for those remaining on the mountain, bringing the total aid delivered to the stranded Yazidis in co-ordination with the Iraqi government to more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of drinking water.

Australia also carried out its first airdrop, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said on Thursday.

"The mission was conducted by a RAAF C-130J Hercules delivering 10 pallets of badly needed supplies to Yazidi civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar by encircling ISIL forces," he said.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said on Wednesday an international plan was under way to rescue trapped civilians.

Washington meanwhile urged Iraqi Prime Minister designate Haidar al-Abadi to move swiftly to form a broad-based government able to unite Iraqis in the fight against the IS insurgents who have overrun large parts of the country.

Abadi, whose nomination was accepted by President Fuad Masum on Monday, has 30 days to build a team that will face the daunting task of defusing sectarian tensions and, in the words of US President Barack Obama, convincing the Sunni Arab minority that ISIL "is not the only game in town".

The office of top Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani released Wednesday a July letter in which he called for incumbent premier Nuri al-Maliki to be replaced.

5 min read
Published 14 August 2014 at 5:42am
Source: SBS