Evacuation mission in Iraq 'far less likely'

The Pentagon announced Wednesday it had landed a team of less than 20 troops on Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq to assess the situation for thousands of Yazidis, an Iraqi minority group that fled there after being targeted by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria fighters. 

The Pentagon said there "are far fewer Yazidis on Mt. Sinjar than previously feared," due to U.S. airdrops of aid, air strikes on ISIS targets, and the efforts of Kurdish forces and the evacuation of thousands each night over the last several days, said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby. 

"The Yazidis who remain are in better condition than previously believed and continue to have access to the food and water that we have dropped," he said in a statement. 

"Based on this assessment the interagency has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely. Additionally, we will continue to provide humanitarian assistance as needed and will protect U.S. personnel and facilities," he said. 

The team consisted of less than 20 troops, and did not engage in combat, said Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby in a statement Wednesday.

All troops have returned safely to Erbil, he said. 

Tens of thousands of Yazidi religious sect members have been stranded on the mountain after fleeing the advance of militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The al Qaeda offshoot is threatening to capture the northern city of Erbil in Iraq.

On Wednesday, the White House said it was considering all options to rescue the Yazidis from the mountain and refused to rule out the use of ground troops.

Plans for evacuating the thousands of Yazidis by land could require the administration to send in forces as an escort.

“[The president] is open to recommendations in which the United States is helping to facilitate the removal of these people from the mountain,” said deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

President Obama has already authorized airstrikes against ISIS and humanitarian airdrops to aid the refugees.

The Guardian reported that the U.S. force flew in on a V-22 Osprey aircraft and joined a small number of American special forces who have been on the mountain for days, assessing the military and humanitarian situation. 

The report said the troops guided airstrikes against ISIS targets. The U.S. has also been dropping food, water and aid to the stranded Yazidis.

The Guardian report cited Yazidis who said they saw small teams of American soldiers on the mountain. 

“We weren’t allowed to go near them,” one man from Sinjar who was airlifted off the mountain told The Guardian. “They were being guarded by the Kurds.” 

This story was updated at 8:00 p.m.