WASHINGTON – The US is rushing to design a rescue strategy for tens of thousands of Yazidi men and women stranded on a mountaintop in northern Iraq, surrounded by a terrorist army seeking to slaughter them.
US President Barack Obama has vowed to prevent the genocide of those atop Mount Sinjar, estimated between 10,000 and 40,000 people, fleeing persecution by fighters of the Islamic State, a Sunni group seeking to carve out a caliphate across the Middle East.
But White House advisers and spokesmen reiterated on Wednesday that the president would entertain all military options to save the helpless Yazidis, save for the deployment of combat troops on the ground.
Pressed to define combat, State Department officials declined to say whether that ruled out troops, protected by air cover, who would guide or transport the Yazidis off the mountain by ground.
The administration said that a rescue mission and a combat mission are two fundamentally different military operations.
“There are a variety of ways in which we can support the safe removal of those people from the mountain,” White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, where Obama is vacationing.
“These 130 personnel are not going to be in a combat role in Iraq,” Rhodes said.
“They’re there on a temporary basis to make assessments about how to get the population off the mountain.”
Among options under consideration are establishing a humanitarian corridor and airlifts, Rhodes said.
In the meantime, the United States will continue airdrops of food and water, he said.
Overnight, the US Air Force conducted a sixth air drop of aid on the mountain that included 7,608 gallons of water and 14,112 Meals Ready-to-Eat field rations.
The USAF has also conducted 24 air strikes against Islamic State assets.
But “dropping food and water is not a long-term solution,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf acknowledged to reporters on Wednesday.
Noting that Islamic State fighters are acting more like an army than a typical terrorist organization, Harf added, “We’re focused on pushing them back from this territory.”
The organization has secured control of territory throughout eastern Syria and northern Iraq, and has threatened Arbil, a major oil-rush city in Iraq’s north that is the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government.
The US has a consulate in Arbil, and thousands of American contractors, entrepreneurs, and construction and servicemen work in its oil industry.
Meanwhile, a political crisis continued in Baghdad as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki stood fast in his refusal to leave his post.
Iraq’s President Fouad Masoum this week nominated Haider al-Abadi to form a new government.
But on Wednesday, Maliki, who has been in power for eight years, called Abadi’s nomination a “conspiracy.”
Rhodes called on Maliki to respect the constitutional process, and let Abadi move forward in his place.
Reuters contributed to this report.