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U.S. Pulls Back on Plans for a Mountain Rescue

By HELENE COOPER, MICHAEL D. SHEAR and ROD NORDLANDAUG. 14, 2014

Continue reading the main story Share This Page Continue reading the main story Photo United States fighter jets took off in the Persian Gulf on Monday to attack Sunni militants in Iraq. Credit Hasan Jamali/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — On Wednesday afternoon, President Obama’s national security advisers gathered in a videoconference to discuss options for rescuing tens of thousands of Yazidis starving and besieged by Sunni militants in northern Iraq. But the meeting was upended by a report from Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the head of the United States Central Command, on the findings of the small team of Marines and Special Operations forces that had just spent 24 hours on Mount Sinjar.

The team had found that there were not tens of thousands of Yazidis on the mountain anymore, only between 4,000 and 5,000. They were no longer starving; many pallets of food and water dropped by the American planes remained unopened. And they were no longer stranded, as Kurdish pesh merga fighters had spent the previous five nights escorting thousands of refugees to safety.

The news took the far-flung advisers who were in the videoconference — including Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Hawaii; Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, on a plane over the Rockies; and the national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, who was with the president on Martha’s Vineyard — by surprise. Just hours before, the White House had sent out a top aide with a statement saying that the United States was considering using American ground troops to rescue the Yazidis.

But no one, least of all the president, who defined his first campaign by his opposition to the war in Iraq, wanted to send American ground troops to Iraq, which the United States left in 2011. Hearing that a rescue most likely would not be needed “was a huge relief,” a senior administration official said.

Video

Obama Makes a Statement on Iraq

President Obama spoke about the continuing military operation in Iraq and the improved situation on Mount Sinjar.

Publish Date August 14, 2014. Photo by Nicholas Kamm/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images. Watch in Times Video »
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“We get paid to think in worst-case scenarios, that’s what we do,” added Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, who was on the plane with Mr. Hagel. “Getting on the mountain and seeing for ourselves that things weren’t as bad as we thought was a pleasant surprise.”

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