EDGARTOWN, Mass. - President Barack Obama is considering a range of military options, including airlifts and creating safe passages, for rescuing thousands of Iraqi refugees trapped on a mountain, the White House said. A small team of U.S. troops secretly scouted the site Wednesday.
Following the team's assessment, it was deemed "far less likely now" that the U.S. would undertake a rescue mission on the mountain because far fewer refugees were found there than previously thought, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland.
Hagel said the refugees on the mountain were in relatively good condition.
U.S. officials said only several thousand refugees remained on the mountain, far lower than the tens of thousands that had been reported earlier.
Hagel credited that in part to U.S. airstrikes giving people opportunity to get off the mountain and the food and water the U.S. has airdropped to the refugees sustain them.
A U.S. military-led rescue mission on Sinjar Mountain could involve putting American troops on the ground. But the White House insisted that their mission would be strictly a humanitarian rescue and would not constitute a return to combat 2 1/2 years after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq. Obama is expected to make a decision in days.
"We don't believe that involves U.S. troops re-entering a combat role in Iraq," said Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser. "It involves frankly a very difficult logistical challenge of moving folks who are in danger on that mountain into a safer position.
The U.S. has been delivering food and water to the refugees for several days. But Rhodes said it was unsustainable to let thousands of people remain on the mountain.
"There needs to be a lasting solution that gets that population to a safe space where they can receive more permanent assistance," he told reporters traveling with the president during his vacation on the Massachusetts island of Martha's Vineyard.
The Pentagon sent 129 U.S. troops to Iraq on Tuesday to assess the scope of the humanitarian crisis and the options for getting them safely off the mountain. Rhodes said that given the urgency of the situation, Obama was expected to receive their final recommendations quickly and make a decision within days.
That process was advanced Wednesday when a team of fewer than 20 U.S. troops was flown onto the mountain by Black Hawk helicopter for a firsthand look at rescue mission possibilities, according to a defense official who revealed some details prior to a public announcement of the mission. They were safely extracted hours later.
Also Wednesday, a U.S. drone aircraft attacked and destroyed an armed truck operated by Islamic militants near Sinjar, the U.S. Central Command said.
Thousands of Iraqi religious minorities sought refuge on Sinjar Mountain after militants from the Islamic State group swept through their village in northern Iraq. In addition to the humanitarian aid drops, the U.S. has conducted airstrikes against Islamic State targets, both to protect American personnel in the region and stop the militants from moving on the civilians again.
Obama has ruled out sending combat troops back into Iraq, where nearly 4,500 Americans were killed during the eight year war that ended in 2011.
Rhodes suggested the U.S. would undertake a rescue mission with help from allies, including Kurdish forces that are receiving arms from the U.S. and the British.
British Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed Wednesday that his country stood ready to assist with that effort.
"We need a plan to get these people off that mountain and get them to a place of safety," he said. "Detailed plans are now being put in place and are underway and that Britain will play a role in delivering them."
The British military has already joined the U.S. in delivering supplies to the mountain in recent days. Rhodes noted that there have also been offers of humanitarian assistance from France, Canada and Australia.
The White House has not said specifically how many people they believe to be on the mountain, though estimates range in the tens of thousands. Rhodes said several thousand have escaped, but the U.S. is seeking a more firm estimate from the assessment team now on the ground.
The Pentagon said the assessment team was transported to Irbil, capital of the largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region, by a small number of V-22 Osprey aircraft from an undisclosed location in the Middle East.
The assessment team joins 90 U.S. military advisers already in Baghdad and 160 in a pair of operations centers - one in Irbil and one in Baghdad, the central government's capital - working with Iraqi security forces.
They were in addition to about 455 U.S. security forces and 100 military personnel working in the Office of Security Cooperation in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.