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Aid workers in Iraq warn mission is far from finished

IRBIL, Iraq – Humanitarian aid workers warned Thursday that it was too soon to declare the U.S. mission to aid Yazidi refugees in northern Iraq a success, noting that at least 100,000 residents who fled the Islamic State’s capture of the city of Sinjar now crowd cities and refugee camps and will need humanitarian assistance for months to come.

There is no prospect that Islamic State militants will be pushed from Mount Sinjar soon – the only long-term solution to the Yazidi displacement.

“We don’t know exactly how many are still out there, it’s just too widely dispersed an area,” said one international aid worker who spoke anonymously because he did not have approval from his group’s media relations office. “But what we know is over 100,000 people are going to need to be cared for, for the foreseeable future, at least. And that’s on top of what was already a massive crisis in the rest of Iraq with over 1 million people displaced from their homes.”

The comment was in response to President Obama’s declaration that U.S. military actions in northern Iraq had broken what he called the siege of a desolate mountain region where tens of thousands of Yazidis had fled after the Islamic State captured the nearby city of Sinjar.

In a brief appearance before reporters in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he is on vacation, Obama said that it was “unlikely” that U.S. aircraft would drop more food and water over the desolate Mount Sinjar area and that “the majority” of 129 military advisers deployed to Irbil to help plan aid operations would soon depart Iraq.

“Americans should be very proud of our efforts,” Obama said, only a week after he had authorized U.S. military action to protect the Yazidis. “Because of the skill and professionalism of our military and the generosity of our people, we broke the … siege of Mount Sinjar, we helped vulnerable people reach safety, and we helped save many innocent lives.” His comments came just hours before the White House scored a diplomatic victory when embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki announced that he was relinquishing his post to his nominated replacement. The decision ended a political deadlock that has plunged the country into uncertainty as it fights the Sunni militant insurgency.

Standing alongside senior members of his party, including rival Haider al-Abadi, al-Maliki said he was stepping aside in favor of his “brother,” in order to “facilitate the political process and government formation.”

Al-Maliki had been struggling for weeks to stay on for a third four-year term as prime minister amid an attempt by opponents to push him out, accusing him of monopolizing power and pursuing a fiercely pro-Shiite agenda that has alienated the Sunni minority. The United States, the United Nations and a broad array of political factions in Iraq had backed al-Abadi, saying only a new leader could unify a country under siege from Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group that have captured large swathes of Iraqi territory.

Al-Maliki said his decision to throw his support behind al-Abadi reflected a desire to “safeguard the high interests of the country,” adding that he would not be the cause of any bloodshed. “My position is your trust in me, and no position is higher than your trust,” he declared in a televised address.

Al-Maliki’s refusal to give up his position after eight years in power had provoked a political crisis that escalated this week in Baghdad, where armed guards patrolled most major bridges, intersections and roadways.

Meanwhile, Kurdish militia fighters who battled Islamic State forces near the city Sinjar suggested that the humanitarian crisis would not end until the city had been retaken – and that this would require much more aggressive bombing from the United States, a prospect not anticipated in Obama’s current authorizations for the use of force. Those limit U.S. airstrikes to protecting American people and property and preventing Islamic State attacks on the Yazidis.

“The fighting is very heavy at times and the Americans have helped with some airstrikes, but there have not been many,” said Hamid, a militia commander who was one of hundreds of Syrian Kurds who crossed into Iraq to help battle the Islamic State near Sinjar. He agreed to speak but asked that only his first name be used.

On a break back in Syria, where he was reached by phone, Hamid said U.S. bombing strikes had provided only limited assistance.

“They helped us clear a path for the refugees, but it will not be enough to remove Daash from the area,” he said, using the disparaging Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “With more bombings we could liberate Sinjar and they could all go home.”

At the Pentagon, spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said that of the 25 airstrikes mounted by U.S. aircraft since Friday, about half were on targets connected to the Sinjar humanitarian mission. Kirby said the authorization for air strikes to protect the Yazidis remained in effect, but with the Yazidis off the mountains, air strikes related to their protection seemed unlikely.

The authorization to strike Islamic State targets that might threaten Kurdish forces’ hold on Irbil, where the United States maintains a large consulate, a CIA station and a joint military operations center, was also active.

Four strikes under that authorization took place Thursday, the U.S. Central Command announced, including a pair that destroyed an Islamic State-operated MRAP, the first time one of one of the U.S.-provided heavily armored vehicles that Islamic State militants captured when they pushed through Iraq in June had been reported to have been targeted.

Details of the assessment team’s 24-hour visit to the Sinjar mountains suggested that the U.S. aid effort may have provided the refugees more psychological than actual value.

The dozen or so troops who spent time in the mountains reported seeing thousands of military meals-ready-to-eat strewn unopened on the hillsides. The United States dropped 114,000 MREs over six days, with the last delivery of more than 14,000 coming Wednesday night after the visiting assessment team had concluded there were few people still in the mountains.

A senior defense official, who commented on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic, said the final drop had gone ahead because “that shipment already was in the pipeline.”

U.S. officials believe that reports of U.S. airstrikes and the food drops gave Yazidis who had fled to the mountains confidence that they could safely leave. In the days leading up to the assessment, thousands successfully made their way to neighboring Iraqi and Syrian cities.

The assessment team found no bodies in the area it surveyed, and while Kirby said that as many as 4,000 people remained in the mountains, other officials said the assessors had concluded the number might be as low as 1,000. Of those still there, as many as half appeared to be permanent residents or did not want to leave.