FISHKHABOUR, Iraq — The flood of Yazidi refugees across the bridge spanning the Iraqi-Syrian border had slowed to a drip by Thursday. Most of the tens of thousands who scrambled up Mount Sinjar to escape advancing militants have now climbed down. They are spilling across northern Iraq — sleeping in fields, cars and abandoned buildings — but at least they are safe.
The crisis of the stranded Yazidi people appears to have ended, at least for the vast majority of those who had been at risk of death from exposure, hunger and thirst after they ran for their lives, only to find themselves trapped on a barren mountain.
Citing the improved conditions, President Obama called off plans for an evacuation of those left behind, saying that there was no need for such an operation.
“The situation on the mountain has greatly improved, and Americans should be very proud of our efforts,” he said. “We helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we helped save many innocent lives.
“We broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar,” he added, using an acronym for the Islamic State militants whose capture of the northwestern town of Sinjar on Aug. 3 triggered the exodus of the Yazidis.
Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, estimated that 4,000 to 5,000 members of the Yazidi sect remain on the mountain, half of them people who already lived there. He cited an assessment by a team of about 20 U.S. Special Forces members who landed on Mount Sinjar early Wednesday and spent the day there, observing the situation firsthand.
“We believe that the threat of mass violence on Mount Sinjar has passed,” he told reporters.
But Kurdish officials and Yazidi refugees say those still on the mountain are the most vulnerable, including the elderly, sick and very young who were unable to complete the trek to safety because they are too weak to walk.
Among them is a group of about 100 people who have taken refuge around a Yazidi shrine near the peak of the mountain. There, conditions are deteriorating fast and five people died of thirst overnight, said Ali Safar Murad, 36, who had escaped Sinjar, then remained behind on the mountain to help people still there.
They are being taken care of by other Yazidis who live in the area, but food and water are scarce, he said. Access to water is the biggest problem, he said. For a week, the U.S. military has been dropping relief supplies by air onto Mount Sinjar. But Murad said that, although he has seen planes circling in the area, no food or water supplies have landed near the group at the shrine.
Murad said he was sure the planes had seen the people.
“We really need help,” he said in a telephone interview. “There is no water and no food. It’s mostly disabled people. Please, please tell the international community to come and save them.”
His claims were impossible to verify. But Farhad Atrushi, the governor of the northern Kurdistan region’s province of Dahuk, where nearly 100,000 Yazidis have taken refuge, said he was sure there are people who are still in need of rescue.
“For me, this is not correct,” he said of the U.S. assessment that the Yazidis were no longer at risk. “I don’t know the exact number, whether it is 10,000 or 15,000 or 5,000, but they are there.”
After more than 10 days living out in the open with little access to food or water, their condition is deteriorating, he said.
“Everyone knows that under the sun, the heat, these people are suffering, and still the international community is not moving,” he said. “What will happen is that they will die, especially the children, the kids.”
Late last week, Kurdish Syrian fighters fought their way through Islamic State positions, opening up a corridor for Yazidis who were trapped to escape through Syria and back into northern Iraq. They were aided by 10 to 12 U.S. airstrikes against the militants.
More than 80,000 Yazidis have since crossed into northern Iraq across a rickety bridge spanning the Tigris River where it demarcates the Iraqi-Syrian border. Several thousand more have arrived via other routes, bringing to more than 100,000 the number who have flooded into Dahuk province since the assault on Sinjar. The Yazidis are a mostly Kurdish-speaking people who practice a faith that includes elements of Zoroastrianism. The Islamic State fighters regard them as apostates.
At the river crossing where tens of thousands of Yazidis had swarmed back into Iraq days ago, there was only a trickle of traffic Thursday. The last of those making the long journey home mostly arrived in pickup trucks driven by friends and relatives who had gone to fetch them, after they had gotten left behind.
“We had so many children, we couldn’t move any faster,” said farmer Matoum Khidr Serhan, 44, explaining why he and his family had taken longer than most to reach safety. He was picked up by a relative who rented a minibus and drove the extended family of more than a dozen children and four adults the last stretch of the journey back into Iraq.
He said they passed others along the way who were too weak to continue, but didn’t know how many. “They are old people, children, and they can’t walk.”
Others who arrived on Thursday reported similar sightings.
U.S. airstrikes will continue against Islamic State positions “to protect our people and facilities in Iraq,” said Obama, speaking in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation.
One such strike on Thursday, near the Kurdistan region’s capital of Irbil, eliminated two armed vehicles that Islamic State fighters had used to fire on Kurdish forces, according to the U.S. Central Command, which oversees military forces in the Middle East.
The strike also destroyed
a U.S.-manufactured armored troop carrier, known as an MRAP, that the militants had captured from retreating Iraqi security forces. The Islamic State has seized vast quantities of U.S. equipment and weaponry from the Iraqi army, but this is the first time it is known to have deployed an MRAP, the vehicle specially designed to protect U.S. troops in Iraq from roadside bombs. They cost about $1 million each.
Whitlock reported from Washington.