iStockphoto/Thinkstock(SINJAR, Iraq) — Expecting the worst, a small team of U.S. special operations forces and relief workers sent to Mount Sinjar was surprised to find far fewer Yazidis trapped on the mountain than initially feared, leading the Obama administration to decide that a large-scale evacuation mission was not necessary.
The 16-member team had been sent to Mount Sinjar to make a first-hand assessment that would help policymakers plan for what could have potentially been a risky and lengthy mission to get tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees off the mountain.
The assessment team arrived in the Kurdish capital of Erbil on Tuesday as part of a larger force of 129 Marines and special operations forces that would support logistical and communications support for their mission.
Shortly after arriving in Erbil the team of military personnel and USAID workers prepared to be flown to Mount Sinjar. The helicopters that took them there flew under the cover of darkness to minimize any risk that might be posed by ISIS fighters located at the base of the mountain.
Once on the mountain, the assessment team began to get a clearer picture of the situation on Mount Sinjar — a picture that did not match what they were expecting to see.
Instead of finding tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees, they found that only 4,000 to 5,000 Yazidis remained on the mountain, and half that number lived on the mountain and did not want to leave their homes.
The team members were soon told that thousands more Yazidis had walked away from the mountain on their own, encouraged by American airstrikes that had targeted ISIS fighters nearby.
American drones flying overhead had not detected nightly evacuations from the mountain of thousands of Yazidis.
The team found that the U.S. military airdrops of water and food had eased the thirst and starvation among the larger number of Yazidis who had been trapped earlier in the week.
The team determined that the airdrops had been successful and had helped alleviate the crisis on the mountain. With fewer Yazidis still left on the mountain, the team found that some airdropped palettes had gone untouched because supplies were now plentiful.
The team spent less than 24 hours on the mountain before they were once again flown at night by helicopter to Erbil.
Their quick initial assessment was forwarded to the Pentagon, where an interagency team determined that an evacuation mission was not warranted.
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