WASHINGTON — President Obama took credit today for liberating Yazidis cornered by the Islamic State on Mount Sinjar while the Pentagon acknowledged that they’re not doing a “happy dance” over the members of the persecuted minority still suffering in the inhospitable environment.
From his vacation spot in Massachusetts, Obama declared a mission accomplished of sorts for the military and humanitarian action he approved a week ago.
“We also knew that ISIL terrorists were killing and enslaving Yazidi civilians in their custody and laying siege to the mountain,” Obama said. “Without food or water, they faced a terrible choice: starve on the mountain or be slaughtered on the ground. That’s when America came to help.”
“Because of the skill and professionalism of our military and the generosity of our people, we broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we helped save many innocent lives,” he continued. “Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain. And it’s unlikely that we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops on the mountain. The majority of the military personnel who conducted the assessment will be leaving Iraq in the coming days.”
Obama acknowledged “the situation remains dire for Iraqis subject to ISIL’s terror throughout the country.”
“And this includes minorities like Yazidis and Iraqi Christians. It also includes many Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds,” he said. “…We obviously feel a great urge to provide some humanitarian relief to the situation, and I’ve been very encouraged by the interest of our international partners in helping on these kinds of efforts as well. We will continue air strikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq.”
Kurdish news agency Rudaw reported today that the danger on the mountain is far from over, even though the Peshmerga opened a route for Yazidis to flee. One mother told the news agency how ISIS terrorists raped her three daughters, then sent them up to join their family — where the anguished girls committed suicide by leaping from Mount Sinjar.
“Another Halabja is happening to us,” a woman praying for death told a reporter, referencing the gassing of the Kurds by Saddam Hussein. “We are disabled, we can’t walk anymore. No food, no water, our children have all died.”
At the Pentagon today, press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was “very proud that we’ve been able to effect this kind of change around Mount Sinjar.”
It was the assessment of a small team that there weren’t as many Yazidis as previously thought on the mountain and some pallets of supplies had been untouched, leading the administration to drop any plans for evacuation efforts.
Kirby said about half of the 25 airstrikes conducted thus far have been to “hit ISIL targets in and around Erbil with respect to the protection of U.S. personnel and facilities” — and those strikes “put a hurting on” ISIS — and the other half were around Mount Sinjar.
“On the estimate of refugees on Mount Sinjar, it’s difficult to provide an exact figure, but we think it’s somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. I’d also add that a number of them, perhaps up to 2,000 or so — and, again, this is an estimate — reside there and may not want to leave. It’s home to many of them. So not all of them will necessarily be looking to leave the mountain,” he said. “That’s our best estimate right now, based on the assessment team’s visit there.”
Kirby said they do believe “there were tens of thousands of Yazidis on that mountain,” but “certainly more than 1,000 or so every night were leaving the mountain with Peshmerga help, again, because of the security and the sustenance that we provided.”
“I think it’d be difficult and imprudent to think that we could know everything simply by flying over a mountain even 24/7. So we made the best estimates we could based on the limited picture we had from the air,” he said, adding that Hagel sent the “less than” 20-member assessment team to the mountain “because there’s no substitute for getting eyes on.”
“I mean, look, they’re up against some pretty brutal people here, you know, beheading young kids and chasing down innocent women and children and slaughtering them. I mean, the — and I’d also say, the threat that ISIL poses is not over. I mean, it’s not like we’re sitting here just breathing a sigh of relief now because everything is better — or things look to be better on Mount Sinjar.… We believe that the threat to the mass violence on Mount Sinjar has passed, largely passed.”
When asked how the math worked out with as many as 40,000 Yazidi refugees whittling down to 5,000 or so, Kirby called it “very difficult to do nose counts from the air.”
Of those still on the mountain, “we still believe that some of them need medical care that is not available to them.”
“…Nobody’s discounting that they’re still suffering in Iraq, that these people are still suffering, and I’ll remind you, there are still thousands on the mountain who continue to suffer.”
Then he added, “But the fact is that most of them have left, and most of them have found shelter or sustenance elsewhere. And, again, that’s a real credit to the Peshmerga and their courage and, again, to the courage and dedication of our troops.”
“So you send a group of 20 to a really big mountain range and it’s a daytime excursion and that’s enough? Like, that’s good enough to assess the entire situation?” a reporter asked.
“Yes,” Kirby simply responded.
A short time later the press secretary added: “Nobody is doing high-fives here at the Pentagon because there are fewer people on the mountain than we thought. And there’s no happy dances here because we think the situation is better there on the mountain.”
“We understand that there continues to be human suffering in Iraq, and we continue to assess and monitor that, and I think the president was clear, the secretary’s clear that we remain committed to working with international partners to try to alleviate the best we can,” he said.
The Pentagon spokesman said he didn’t “have a good reason for why there isn’t a name” for the operation.
“And, frankly, I’m not so sure that that’s relevant. We have very clear objectives. We’re achieving them. Nobody’s worried about what kind of patch they’re going to wear on their uniform as a result of this.”
Asked if airstrikes against ISIS as the terrorists close in on Baghdad are an option, Kirby replied, “I’m not going to rule anything in or out.”
“But to the degree that we conduct any airstrikes in and around Baghdad, it would be under the authority we’ve been given by the commander-in-chief to protect U.S. personnel and facilities,” he said. “Again, the president’s been clear. We’re not going to become Iraq’s air force.”