U.S. considering range of options to rescue Iraq’s Yazidis

The British Royal Air Force drops further aid to refugees in central and northern Iraq overnight on August 12, the third day of aid delivery. (Crown Copyright 2014 via YouTube)

The Obama administration is considering a range of military options to rescue the thousands of refugees from the minority Yazidi sect trapped atop a mountain in northwestern Iraq, a senior official said Wednesday.

The president and his national security team are expected to review those options “in a matter of days,” said the official, Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser.

Rhodes reiterated Obama’s statements ruling out the reintroduction of U.S. forces for ground combat in Iraq. But he added that “there are a variety of ways in which we can support the safe removal” of the Yazidis, who are stranded atop Mount Sinjar with limited supplies of food and water and who face threat of attack by members of the radical Islamist insurgent group known as the Islamic State.

Rhodes, speaking to reporters traveling with Obama during his vacation in Martha’s Vineyard, said that the 130 military advisers recently deployed to Iraq would “make recommendations” about how to follow through with plans to get people trapped on the mountain off. He said U.S. personnel will “not be in a combat role” and instead will be in Iraq “on a temporary basis to make an assessment.”

The United States has already made several humanitarian airdrops on the mountain, providing 100,000 meals and 27,000 gallons of water, not including British support.

Rhodes’s remarks came as the political crisis in Baghdad continued, even as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki lost further support in his bid to cling on to power.

In Tehran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the top Iranian political and Shiite religious authority, said Wednesday that he hoped the designation by Iraq’s president of Shiite politician Haider al-Abadi as the country’s new prime minister “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,” Reuters news agency reported.

Rhodes made clear that the United States is on the same page. He described Abadi as “clearly the prime minister-designate in Iraq” and said he offers an opportunity to forge a “unity government” that would focus on fighting the Islamic State.

Addressing the Iraqi people in his weekly televised address, Maliki argued that clinging to power was his “ethical and patriotic duty” to voters. Describing the nomination of Abadi as illegal, he encouraged people to protest the “error.”

Maliki acknowledged the weight of voices against him in his speech and criticized nations including the United States for supporting his ouster. But he said he would not relinquish power until the federal court rules on the legality of Abadi’s nomination.

“It is a constitutional violation,” Maliki said, referring to the appointment of Abadi by Iraq’s new president, Fouad Massoum. He also called it “a conspiracy” planned from inside or outside Iraq.

Khamenei’s statement buttressed comments Tuesday from Tehran in support of Abadi. The Iranian leadership, which wields significant influence in Iraqi politics, joined a range of Iraqi political groups — including Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites — in withdrawing support from Maliki, who is also a Shiite and belongs to the same political party as Abadi.

Trapped on Sinjar Mountain

In his effort to hang onto power, Maliki has deployed security forces to strategic points across the capital.

The United States and many Iraqis see the creation of a new, more inclusive government as crucial to peeling away support for the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. Maliki had marginalized the country’s Sunni minority, pushing some to support the fighters.

The al-Qaeda-inspired militants have seized large chunks of territory in recent weeks to form a renegade nation stretching across the Iraqi border into Syria. The sweeping offensive has forced tens of thousands of Iraqis — many of whom are members of religious minorities — to flee for their lives.

Britain will “play a role” in the international mission to rescue the stranded Yazidis, British Prime Minister David Cameron said Wednesday.

“We need a plan to get these people off that mountain and get them to a place of safety, and I can confirm that detailed plans are now being put in place and are underway, and that Britain will play a role in delivering that,” Cameron said.

But the British prime minister, who cut short a vacation in Portugal and returned to London to chair an emergency meeting on the Iraq crisis Wednesday, said Britain’s role would continue to be humanitarian in nature. His government has defied demands to recall Parliament from its summer recess for a debate on partnering with the United States to launch airstrikes on Islamic State militants.

Britain also refrained Wednesday from joining France in promising arms for Kurdish security forces, though Britain has agreed to transport military supplies to the Kurds “from other contributing states.”

On Tuesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that an additional 130 U.S. troops had arrived in Iraq to help plan for a likely expansion of humanitarian relief operations in the north.

Although Hagel did not give details, he signaled that the Pentagon was laying the groundwork for a more ambitious rescue mission. Speaking to Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif., Hagel said the extra troops would “take a closer look and give a more in-depth assessment” of the U.S. relief efforts that began last week.

The new deployment comes in addition to 775 troops previously authorized to go to Iraq to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities, work with Iraqi forces and conduct other missions.

The U.S. government has been conducting airstrikes against the Sunni extremists in the country’s north, where the semiautonomous Kurdish region has been pleading for support to keep Islamic State fighters from overrunning its boundaries.

The United States has also begun directly supplying the Kurds with weapons, U.S. officials said this week.

Morris reported from Baghdad. Liz Sly in Dahuk, William Branigin, Craig Whitlock, Karen DeYoung and Rick Noack in Washington, Griff Witte in London, Anne Gearan in Sydney, Mustafa Salim in Baghdad and Ahmed Ramadan in Beirut contributed to this report.

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
Loveday Morris is a Beirut-based correspondent for The Post. She has previously covered the Middle East for The National, based in Abu Dhabi, and for the Independent, based in London and Beirut.
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