WASHINGTON – The humanitarian crisis facing religious minorities stranded on a mountaintop in northern Iraq has been averted, US President Barack Obama said on Thursday, after the US Air Force conducted strikes on terrorists at its base and delivered seven tranches of much-needed aid.
Obama said the US had broken the Islamic State’s attempted siege of Iraq’s Yazidi minority.
“We helped vulnerable people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives,” Obama said at a press briefing in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts.
“Because of these efforts we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain and it’s unlikely we are going to need to continue humanitarian airdrops on the mountain.”
The US military had been strategizing how best to guide the Yazidis from their refuge atop Mount Sinjar, where American officials feared a genocide might occur without military action.
US special forces were sent to the site to gauge the needs of the refugees and the population trapped there.
Obama said the US military would continue to protect American assets in and around Arbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, where the US has a consulate.
More than a dozen air strikes targeted Islamic State near Arbil, the State Department said on Thursday afternoon.
“We said we would break the siege of Mount Sinjar, and indeed have,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said, calling the development “a little bit of good news.”
Earlier in the day, Islamic State gunmen were massing near the Iraqi town of Qara Tappa, 122 km. north of Baghdad, security sources and a local official said, in an apparent bid to engage with more Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
The Sunni insurgents have in the past few weeks made a dramatic push through the north to a position near Arbil.
The movement around Qara Tappa suggests they are getting more confident and seek to grab more territory closer to the city after stalling in that region.
“The Islamic State is massing its militants near Qara Tappa,” said one of the security sources. “It seems they are going to broaden their front with the Kurdish fighters.”
Islamic State has been using tunnels built by Saddam Hussein in the 1990s to secretly move fighters, weapons and supplies from strongholds in western Iraq to towns just south of Baghdad.
The Sunni terrorist group, made up of Iraqis, other Arabs and foreign fighters, has threatened to march on Baghdad, part of its ambition to redraw the map of the Middle East and impose its radical version of Islam.