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Could Marines evacuate Iraqi civilians from Iraq’s Mount Sinjar?

A U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey aircraft with Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 263 (Reinforced), and the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit departs the flight deck of the USS Mesa Verde in June. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Lukas Atwell/ Marine Corps)

Pentagon officials said Tuesday night that the additional 130 U.S. troops the United States has sent to Iraq to assess options to help in the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the northern part of the country includes both Marines and Special Operations troops. On Wednesday, we may have learned why: U.S. officials may be weighing the aerial evacuation of thousands of displaced Yazidis, a religious minority in Iraq who have been trapped on Mount Sinjar for days.

The Yazidis fled to the mountain to avoid the threat of violence posed by militants with the Islamic State, which has swept across the region. Officials said the mission would use V-22 Ospreys — an aircraft that only Marines and Special Operations troops deploy.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told Marines and sailors in an appearance at Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Tuesday that “we’re not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat mission dimensions that we once were in.” Rather, he said, “there are some things we can continue to do, and we are doing, and I just wanted you to know that.”

A Pentagon official added more context afterward, saying the additional U.S. personnel come “from within the U.S. Central Command region,” which spans the Middle East and includes the Persian Gulf.

The Iraqi military has been evacuating Yazidis from the mountain in recent days while delivering humanitarian assistance in helicopters. As The Washington Post’s Loveday Morris highlighted on the WorldViews blog, the desperation of those who get on board is obvious. Civilians have been seen in news video recorded on the helicopters crying, hugging and praying as they are pulled from the mountainside, where there is little shelter or supplies and temperatures soar above 100 degrees.

The Ospreys would offer more range and speed than conventional helicopters, given their tilt-rotor design that allows them to fly like an airplane after they take off. They are in the region with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, of Camp Lejeune, N.C., a naval force that deployed in February as party of the Navy’s Bataan Amphibious Ready Group. Two of the group’s three ships — the USS Bataan and the USS Gunston Hall — were southeast of Iraq in the Persian Gulf on Friday, Navy officials told Checkpoint. The third ship, the USS Mesa Verde, was farther away in the Red Sea.

Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that about four Ospreys were used to transport the additional troops, which include about 80 Marines, into Irbil. The aircraft have remained there, along with an unspecified number of other U.S. helicopters. It is the first time the Pentagon has acknowledged deploying aircraft in Irbil and keeping them there.

There are now a total of about 200 U.S. forces in Irbil: the 130 troops who arrived yesterday, and 70 who were already there in a joint operations center opened in June. Warren declined to comment when asked if the Ospreys might be used to evacuate the Yazidis, saying only that the aircraft would remain in northern Iraq “until they’re no longer required.”

Evacuating civilians from the mountainside would likely require at least some U.S. troops on the ground, however. A security perimeter for the aircraft to land would be required, and troops would likely be needed at a nearby airfield, perhaps in Irbil, to coordinate the multiple trips it would take. Additional attack helicopters like the AH-1W Super Cobra also would likely escort the Osprey, which can carry about 24 passengers.

The additional deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq this week is in addition to the estimated 775 military personnel who are already there to protect diplomatic facilities, advise Iraqi forces and perform other work. Many of the latter group are U.S. Special Operations troops, including elite Green Beret commandos in the Irbil area.

As suggested in this Foreign Policy article last night, U.S. leaders already are making the case to allies to assist in the new military campaign in Iraq.  Great Britain has sent a handful of Tornado GR4 fighter jets to the region to conduct reconnaissance missions and C-130s to drop humanitarian aid.

Australia also has offered assistance — Australian Defense Minister David Johnston said Tuesday in a joint appearance with senior U.S. officials that his country would contribute. It’s a skill Australia has possessed “since East Timor,” Johnston said, referring to the Aussies’ role in a United Nations mission in 1999 to curb violence in the Pacific island nation after its people voted for independence from Indonesia.

Staff writer Craig Whitlock contributed to this report.