By: MICHAEL D SHEAR & HELENE COOPER
A senior White House official said on Wednesday that the United States would consider using American ground troops to assist Iraqis in rescuing Yazidi refugees if recommended by military advisers assessing the situation.
Benjamin J Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, told reporters that President Obama would probably receive recommendations in the next several days about how to mount a rescue operation to help the refugees, who are stranded on a mountaintop surrounded by Sunni militants. He said those recommendations could include the use of American ground troops.
But he drew a distinction between the use of American forces to help a humanitarian mission and the use of troops in the battle against militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, something he said the president had rejected before and continued to oppose.
“What he’s ruled out is reintroducing US forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” Rhodes said. He added that the deployment of ground troops to assist a rescue was “different than reintroducing US forces in a combat role to take the fight to ISIL.”
He acknowledged that any ground troops in Iraq would face dangers, even if they were there to help the refugees find a safe way off the mountain. He said that like American forces anywhere, the troops would have the ability to defend themselves if they came under fire.
But Rhodes said the White House would not make a decision on how to carry out a rescue until the president heard back from an assessment team that the Pentagon sent into Iraq on Tuesday. That team, which includes about 130 personnel, will report back within several days.
But he added that something would have to be done to help get the refugees off the mountain because “we don’t believe it’s sustainable to have permanent airdrops” of humanitarian aid.
Getting tens of thousands of Yazidis off Mount Sinjar would be a complicated and dangerous endeavor, Pentagon officials said. The most direct route off the mountain would be heading south into greater Iraq, but that would take the refugees and any troops protecting them through ISIS territory, increasing the potential for combat and casualties. Passing through the ISIS-held area, an official warned, would also allow the militants to blend into the refugee population, making it more difficult to target them.
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