WASHINGTON — Roughly 4,500 people remain atop northern Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain, and nearly half are herders who lived there before the siege and have no interest in being evacuated, two U.S. officials said.
The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk publicly, said a U.S. team who spent Wednesday on the mountaintop reported numbers far smaller and circumstances less dire than feared.
That makes it less likely that U.S. troops will need to conduct a major rescue effort, but it does not substantially change the big picture in Iraq, which is in crisis with an ineffective government and an aggressive Sunni insurgency.
The Obama administration has been airdropping food on the mountain and contemplating a military-led rescue of civilians who fled there to escape the militant group known as the Islamic State. But it had been unclear how many people might need evacuation. Some had reported them to number in the tens of thousands.
After being briefed on the assessment team’s trip to Sinjar Mountain, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that it was “far less likely” now that a rescue mission would be needed.
Hagel called the assessment a bit of good news. Of the U.S. effort in Iraq, he said: “It’s not over. It’s not complete.”
Attacks across Iraq’s north and west by the Islamic State and its Sunni militant allies this summer have displaced members of the minority Christian and Yazidi religious communities and threatened neighboring Iraqi Kurds in the autonomous region.
Thousands of Yazidis on the mountain were able to leave each night over the last several days, Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement.
The U.S. troops and U.S. Agency for International Development staff who conducted the assessment on Sinjar — fewer than 20 people overall — did not engage in combat operations and all returned safely to Irbil by military aircraft, Kirby said.
“The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped,” Kirby said. “We will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed and will protect U.S. personnel and facilities.”
The U.S. Central Command said late Wednesday that four U.S. cargo planes airdropped 108 bundles of food and water to the remaining people atop the mountain. It was the seventh U.S. delivery of food and water since the relief operation began last week.