President Barack Obama said the danger from radicals in Iraq still requires U.S. involvement even after the siege that trapped members of a religious minority on a mountain has been broken.
“The situation remains dire for Iraqis subject to ISIL’s terror throughout the country,” Obama said, referring to the jihadist group that calls itself the Islamic State. “And this includes minorities like Yezidis and Iraqi Christians. It also includes many Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds.”
He called on Iraqis to seize “the enormous opportunity of forming a new inclusive government” under Haidar al-Abadi, the designated successor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki said today that he’s stepping down, ending weeks of resistance to giving up his post.
A rescue operation from Mount Sinjar near the Syrian border wasn’t needed, in part because of U.S. airstrikes that helped Kurdish Peshmerga troops on the ground evacuate the vulnerable and relief flights that provided water and food, Obama said in Edgartown, Massachusetts.
“The situation on the mountain has greatly improved, and Americans should be very proud of our efforts,” Obama said.
The Obama administration had been weighing military rescue operations that could have put U.S. forces at risk in Iraq for the first time since the last American combat troops left at the end of 2011.
U.S. troops that visited the mountain yesterday found fewer trapped civilians than expected, which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said made it “far less likely” that the U.S. would conduct a rescue operation.
Hagel said the military actions the U.S. has taken in recent days helped avert a humanitarian disaster that administration officials had warned could amount to genocide.
While the World Health Organization’s Iraq representative this week said about 50,000 people were at risk on the mountain, Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s chief spokesman, said today the number is 4,000 to 5,000.
Of those, about 2,000 live on the mountain and may not want to leave, he said.
As recently as yesterday, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf had said there “tens of thousands” of Yezidis trapped on the mountain.
Kirby said today that such estimates had been accurate before thousands of people left the mountain over each of the past several nights.
“It’s very difficult to do nose counts from the air,” Kirby said, referring to reconnaissance images captured from above the mountain.
The threat from the Islamic State isn’t over, and the U.S. may resort to further airstrikes for humanitarian purposes or to protect U.S. personnel, including those in Baghdad, he said.
“It’s not like we’re sitting here breathing a sign of relief,” he said.