By Justin Sink - 08/13/14 01:38 PM EDT
President Obama has not ruled out using U.S. ground troops to evacuate refugees trapped on a mountain in northern Iraq, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said Wednesday.
Tens of thousands of Kurdish-speaking Yazidis fled to Mount Sinjar, fearing slaughter at the hands of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forces that made gains through Kurdish territory earlier this month.
The U.S. has conducted six airdrop operations to provide the refugees with food and water, but attention has turned to finding a way for the Yazidis to get off the mountain. On Tuesday, the president ordered 130 U.S. military personnel to the region to help make assessments on how to carry out such a mission.
"It involves, frankly, a very difficult logistical challenge of moving folks who are in danger on that mountain to a safer position," Rhodes said.
Rhodes said officials expect military recommendations on how to evacuate the refugees "within days." The White House spokesman said Obama would consider U.S. troops helping with that removal, looking to distinguish such a humanitarian operation from a return to combat in Iraq.
"He is open to recommendations in which the United States is helping to facilitate the removal of these people from the mountain on a humanitarian mission, which we believe is separate than saying U.S. forces we deployed in Iraq in a combat role to take the fight to ISIL," Rhodes said. ISIL is another common abbreviation to describe the Sunni militants.
"If there is additional things that we can do as part of an effort to move them off of the mountain, he’ll certainly review those options," Rhodes added.
Still, the administration's preference seems to be assisting Kurdish and Iraqi troops operating in the region.
"We have a range of ways that we can support this type of effort," Rhodes said. "We bring very unique capabilities in terms of our logistical capacity, in terms of our intelligence capacity, in terms of how we can support and strengthen the Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground."
Separately, the White House offered some of its strongest encouragement yet for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to quietly depart as that country's head of state.
Al-Maliki has said he wants to seek a third term as Iraq's leader, despite criticism that his purge of minority Iraqis from top military and political posts enabled the rise of the Sunni extremists now waging war against the Shiites and Kurds. The Iraqi leader has said he will ask a federal court to intervene, and he has deployed militia throughout the streets of Baghdad.
Earlier this week, Iraqi President Faud Masum nominated Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to replace al-Maliki.
"The White House will be very glad to see a new government in place with Prime Minister Abadi the lead of that government," Rhodes said. "We believe it’s necessary, frankly, to bring the country together."
The spokesman said al-Abadi's nomination represented "an enormous opportunity" to create a unity government "a unity government that all of Iraq’s different factions can buy into."
"He needs to respect that process, let it go forward because, frankly, this is not being imposed on anybody from outside of Iraq," Rhodes said.