By Kathleen Hennessey, David S. Cloud
Administration officials said Wednesday that President Obama is considering using military helicopters and other aircraft to help rescue thousands of refugees trapped on Mt. Sinjar in northwest Iraq, potentially putting U.S. forces closer to the extremist fighters who have laid siege to the area.
The Pentagon said it has sent tilt-rotor cargo aircraft and helicopters to a "secure airfield" to northern Iraq as Obama weighs the operation, officials said.
The president has not yet made a decision on how to proceed, according to Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor.
“There are a variety of ways we can support the safe removal of those people on the mountain,” Rhodes told reporters in Edgartown, Mass., near where the president is vacationing.
Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that V-22 aircraft, which can land and take off like helicopters, were positioned near the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil with a team of 130 Marines and special operations troops who are assessing how to get the refugees out safely.
"The purpose of this team is to assess other options" beyond airdrops of food, water and other supplies to the refugees, he said. "There's no question that speed is of the essence."
Rhodes said an airlift to rescue the refugees was likely to be considered, as was a military operation to create a protected ground corridor to lead the refugee to a “safe space.”
He said the president will keep his promise not to return “ground forces into combat” in Iraq. However, he acknowledged that even a humanitarian mission in the area carries risks.
“There are dangers involved in any military operation ... but [the president's] confident that we can have a limited military objective,” Rhodes said.
The U.S. has conducted seven airdrops of food and water to stranded Yazidis, members of a religious minority who sought safety on Mt. Sinjar as Islamic State militants seized control of communities in northern Iraq.
Estimates vary widely, from several thousand to tens of thousands, as to how many people are still on the mountain. Rhodes said thousands are believed to still be in danger.
“We don’t believe it’s sustainable to just have, you know, permanent airdrops to this population on the mountain,” Rhodes said. “Some of them have been able to escape but, again, we want to get options in place to move them to a safer place.”
The V-22 Ospreys' ability to land under harsh conditions would make them useful in any operation to remove the refugees by air. It was not clear how many of the aircraft have been moved to northern Iraq.
They are the first U.S. planes based at airfields in Iraq since the crisis began, according to the Pentagon, signaling a steadily growing American role for an operation that Obama had pledged to keep limited.
Warren would not disclose the location of the airfield, but he said it was protected by Marines and Kurdish troops.
The possibility of a U.S.-led evacuation had grown in recent days as airstrikes have reduced the fighting ability of the militants around Mt. Sinjar, officials said.
U.S. airstrikes in recent days have "slowed if not stopped" the ability of the Islamic State militants to fire mortars and other artillery in the area, Warren said.
A major concern for the U.S. as it contemplates a rescue mission is that, though the militants do not have antiaircraft weapons that would threaten U.S. fighters, they do have weapons that could bring down helicopters and even the propeller-driven V-22, officials said.
There are now 198 U.S. military personnel in northern Iraq, Warren said.