EDGARTOWN Mass. (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama said on Thursday the Islamist militant siege of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar had been broken and most U.S. military personnel sent to assess the situation would be pulled out of Iraq in coming days.
He told reporters he did not expect the United States to have to stage an evacuation of the mountain, where thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority had been trapped by militants, or to continue humanitarian airdrops.
“We broke the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) siege of Mount Sinjar,” Obama said.
“We helped innocent people reach safety and we helped save many innocent lives. 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 are going to need to continue humanitarian airdrops on the mountain,” he said.
Kieran Dwyer, spokesman for the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said it was too early to declare the crisis over. Improved security had allowed large numbers of Yazidis to escape Mount Sinjar, he said, but “some thousands” still needed help.
“The crisis on the mountain will not be over until everybody is able to come off that mountain to a safe and secure location in a safe and secure manner,” Dwyer said. He was speaking to Reuters by telephone from the Kurdish capital Arbil.
Obama said the majority of military personnel who conducted the assessment of Mount Sinjar would leave Iraq in coming days.
The United States sent 130 military personnel to Arbil to draw up options ranging from a safe corridor for the Yazidis to an airlift to rescue them. A team of fewer than 20 U.S. personnel flew to Mount Sinjar to assess the situation.
The U.S. Defense Department said it believed 4,000-5,000 people remained on the narrow strip of craggy high ground more than 40 miles (65 km) long, but said that up to 2,000 of them lived there and may want to stay.
Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to say whether and where any future U.S. air strikes in Iraq might take place, but said Obama had authorized the use of strikes to protect U.S. personnel anywhere in Iraq.
“The president has been clear. We’re not going to become Iraq’s air force.” Kirby told reporters.
The United Nations said it had raised the humanitarian emergency in Iraq to its highest level, putting it on a par with Syria, South Sudan and the Central African Republic.
Working with local groups, U.N. agencies are providing food, water, shelter and medical care to those who have streamed into Kurdish-controlled territory since June when the Islamic State began its latest offensive.
Dwyer said some 400,000 Iraqis had fled to Dohuk Governorate close to the Turkish and Syrian borders. Iraq has 1.2 million displaced people and 1.5 million needing help, the United Nations says.
Reporting by Jeff Mason and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Jim Loney, Bill Trott and Howard Goller