Humanitarian mission could expand in Iraq

A Pentagon spokesman left the door open to further U.S. involvement in Iraq for humanitarian purposes Thursday.

Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said that troops would continue to monitor and assess “human suffering” throughout the country, even as he acknowledged that the situation of thousands of members of an Iraqi religious sect who had been marooned on a mountaintop in Iraq is much better than first thought.

“Nobody is doing high-fives here at the Pentagon because there are fewer people on the mountain than we thought. And there's no happy dances here because we think the situation is better there on the mountain,” Kirby said Thursday.

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“We're still very mindful [that] there may yet be humanitarian needs elsewhere in Iraq, and we're going to continue to review that and look at that,” he said.

The Pentagon would not give any clear idea as to what kind of humanitarian crisis might trigger a new or expanded mission.

“It's not bounded by necessarily geography. It's not bounded by necessarily ... a number. There's not like a whole number that's a trip wire that will say, well, if it that's number, then all of a sudden we're going to get involved,” Kirby said.

“You have to look at human suffering in [the] context of what's going on inside the country and your ability to affect or not affect,” he said. “What I would tell you is that we're not taking our eye off the ball in terms of humanitarian suffering in Iraq.”

The United States began airdropping aid a week ago to tens of thousands of Yazidis, an Iraqi religious sect. The Yazidis had become stranded on Mount Sinjar, close to the Syrian border, after fleeing Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) fighters.

Hours later, the United States started airstrikes that targeted ISIS fighters who were besieging the Yazidis from the foot of the mountain. Additional strikes were aimed at ISIS forces advancing toward the city of Erbil, where a number of U.S. facilities are located and where thousands of Americans live.

Although the White House said airdrops and airstrikes were authorized only for those narrow missions, the president suggested Thursday that the United States would address humanitarian crises faced by other Iraqi groups.

“Now, the situation remains dire for Iraqis subject to ISIL's terror throughout the country. And this includes minorities like Yazidis and Iraqi Christians. It also includes many Sunnis, Shia, and Kurds,” Obama said.

“We're going to be working with our international partners to provide humanitarian assistance to those who are suffering in northern Iraq wherever we have capabilities and we can carry out effective missions like the one we carried out on Mount Sinjar, without committing combat troops on the ground,” he said.

Several lawmakers this week have called upon the president to support Iraqi Christians who are also being targeted by ISIS in northern Iraq.

"There are as many as 200,000 Christians and others who are under the threat of annihilation. Genocide is really what they're being confronted with," said Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) on MSNBC on Wednesday.

"Stories of Christian women and children being captured, killed, and beheaded are heartbreaking. ISIS has even demanded that Christians ‘leave, convert, or die,’ " Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) said in a statement Wednesday.

"I urge President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and Secretary of Defense Hagel to take swift action to protect Christians living  in the Middle East, which is consistent with the actions taken to protect the Yazidis," he added.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) also retweeted a tweet Wednesday, which called on U.S. lawmakers to help Iraqi Christians.

“@brianschatz @mazie @maziehirono @TulsiGabbard @ColleenHanabusa Please help #IraqiChristians! Pressure President @BarackObama #genocide,” it said.

Kirby said he was “not aware of any specific options for other groups under threat,” but emphasized that the threat ISIS poses “is not over.”

“It's not like we're sitting here just breathing a sigh of relief now because everything is better — or things look to be better on Mount Sinjar,” he said.

“We think that the great crisis that we thought existed on the mountain, we certainly have alleviated that. But nobody's turning a blind eye to humanitarian suffering there inside Iraq elsewhere. Again, I don't have any decisions to announce today, but it's not over," he said. 

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