U.S. considers air evacuation of refugees in northern Iraq

CNN/Warzer Jaff
Wednesday, August 13, 2014 - 10:44am

With the arrival of 130 U.S. troops in northern Iraq to assess the humanitarian crisis, the United States is considering a possible air evacuation of thousands of Yazidis from Mount Sinjar, a U.S. official told CNN Wednesday.

Any operation would, of course, require President Barack Obama's approval.

The focus on an air option -- rather than a ground operation -- is due to initial indications that ground transport would take too long, and the distance would expose the Yazidis to too much risk, said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter and asked not to be named. In addition, many of the people are in too poor a medical condition to make a lengthy journey, the official explained. That said, a ground operation is still an option under consideration, U.S. officials said.

It is now likely a small number of American military personnel will make the journey to Mount Sinjar to get a direct look at the situation, the official said. If an air operation is approved, it would mean putting U.S. ground troops both on the mountain and at a nearby airfield, the official said.

The operation will be characterized as a short-term humanitarian mission and not a combat mission. U.S. troops -- as always -- will have the right to defend themselves against ISIS attacks. U.S. airstrikes currently are aimed at destroying ISIS position around the mountain. The U.S. would establish a security corridor around the area to try to provide airspace for U.S. rescue helicopters and V-22 aircraft to fly to the mountain to pick people up.

The 130 troops would form the beginning of a joint task force to carry out an evacuation, the official said. They will work to develop procedures for rescuing and then processing people being brought off the mountain, but there are still several unresolved questions -- such as, where will the Yazidis be taken?

Asked about a potential evacuation operation on CNN's "New Day," Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said he didn't "want to get too far out in front of this thing.

"We shouldn't be jumping to a conclusion right now that there is or won't be a rescue operation in particular."

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