- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Escalating his week-old military mission in Iraq, President Obama ordered about 130 U.S. ground troops to scout escape routes for Iraqis trapped on a mountain by Islamist extremists, and the White House on Wednesday didn’t rule out sending a larger ground force to rescue the refugees.

White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said the president and his advisers are considering the use of ground troops to create a safe “corridor” for the evacuation of the besieged Iraqis on Mount Sinjar but said they “haven’t made that decision at this point.”

Mr. Obama vowed a week ago, when he ordered U.S. airstrikes against the militants, that he wouldn’t send combat troops to Iraq. Mr. Rhodes said the new troops “are not going to be in a combat role,” but he acknowledged that any U.S. forces in Iraq could become engaged in fighting, depending on the enemy’s actions.

Mr. Rhodes said the president “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 are going to be … deployed in Iraq in a combat role to take the fight” to the militants.

“What he’s ruled out is reintroducing U.S. forces into combat on the ground in Iraq,” he said.

On Wednesday evening, Department of Defense officials said a Mount Sinjar rescue mission became “far less likely” after a team of U.S. Army Green Berets surveyed the situation in the last day and found fewer refugees and better conditions than had been expected.

Meanwhile, in Baghdad, embattled Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday he will not relinquish power until a federal court rules on what he claims is a “constitutional violation” by the president to replace him with a member of his own party.

“Holding on [to the premiership] is an ethical and patriotic duty to defend the rights of voters,” Mr. al-Maliki said in his weekly address to the nation, insisting his actions were meant to “protect the state.”

Although the militants’ progress in the north has been slowed, attacks in and near Baghdad killed at least 29 people Wednesday. France said it is sending arms to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq to aid the Kurds’ “urgent need” for support against militants of the Islamic State, and a Pentagon spokesman confirmed that the U.S. also is providing weapons directly to Kurdish fighters.

Mr. Obama ordered military “assessment teams” totaling 130 military advisers into northern Iraq to determine how best to rescue the tens of thousands of ethnic Yazidis trapped by militants of the Islamic State.

The president expects to receive their recommendations within days. “We want to see what the circumstances are, see what options are available for moving those people who are trapped on the mountain,” Mr. Rhodes said.

The Green Beret team, which one official said consisted of about 20 to 25 commandos, returned Wednesday from its scouting expedition for a potential rescue mission. But after the excursion, officials decided there were “far fewer Yazidis” on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said.

“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. “Based on this assessment, the interagency [force] has determined that an evacuation mission is far less likely.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made similar comments Wednesday night, crediting airdrops of food and water for keeping refugees alive and U.S.-led airstrikes for giving thousands of refugees a chance to escape without fear of Islamic State jihadists.

“As a result of that assessment, I think it’s … far less likely now that we would undertake any kind of specific humanitarian rescue mission that we have been planning,” Mr. Hagel told reporters.

But, he cautioned, “that doesn’t mean that we won’t.”

For a week, the U.S. and its allies have been conducting airdrops of more than 100,000 meals and 27,000 gallons of water to save the Iraqis. Some desperate refugees have clambered aboard helicopters during the missions to escape the area.

Mr. Rhodes said the massive humanitarian effort is not “sustainable” and that there “needs to be a lasting solution” to the refugee crisis.

As the signs mounted of an expanding U.S. mission in Iraq, lawmakers are urging the president to consult more closely with Congress.

“Certainly I think the president needs to consult Congress,” said Rep. Robert Pittenger, North Carolina Republican, on MSNBC. “Tragically, the president’s foreign policy has lacked true leadership whether you look at Ukraine or Syria or Iran. We’ve left vacuums, we’ve left voids — that’s what’s happening with [the Islamic State] today.”

However, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat, said the president doesn’t need permission from Congress to continue targeted airstrikes in Iraq, but he should consult lawmakers if he wants to expand the U.S. mission.

“The president could do a lot more than he’s doing, legally, but I think the president is really clear he’s not going to do a whole lot more. We’re not talking about boots on the ground, and he is going to consult with Congress,” Mr. Van Hollen said.

The Obama administration views the formation of a new government in Baghdad as the key to beating back the fighters of the Islamic State, and the administration is backing Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Ibadi to take over power from Mr. al-Maliki.

Mr. al-Maliki has grown increasingly isolated, with Iraqi politicians and much of the international community lining up behind Mr. al-Ibadi, a fellow member of Mr. al-Maliki’s Shiite Dawa party. Mr. al-Ibadi was picked by President Fouad Massoum to form a new government that can unite the country in the face of an onslaught by the Islamic State’s Sunni militants.

But Mr. al-Maliki refuses to step down and has vowed legal action, saying he would go to the courts to prove the president’s choice of Mr. al-Ibadi was “a coup” against the constitution.

As international support mounts for Mr. al-Ibadi, Iraqi troops imposed heightened security in Baghdad on Wednesday.

Tanks and Humvees were positioned on Baghdad bridges and at major intersections, with security personnel more visible than usual as about 100 al-Maliki supporters rallied at Firdous Square.

In Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei expressed hope Wednesday that “a government will be formed so that they [Iraqis] can give the necessary and appropriate response to the sedition-makers.”

Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it hoped Mr. al-Ibadi will establish “a comprehensive national government that includes all components of the Iraqi people.”

The White House said Mr. al-Maliki needs to step aside.

“He needs to respect that process, let it go forward, because, frankly, this is not being imposed on anybody from outside of Iraq,” Mr. Rhodes said. “This is what the Iraqis themselves have decided to do.”

Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said the U.S. military is working with its international partners to see how to best funnel additional military supplies to the Kurds.

If the Pentagon moves forward with a weapons delivery plan, it would be joining British and French efforts to transport critical military supplies to the Kurdish fighters.

On Wednesday, attacks in and near Baghdad killed at least 29 people and wounded scores more, police said.

A car bomb in eastern New Baghdad killed eight, while six people, including four police officers, died when a car bomb struck a checkpoint in western Baghdad. A bomb at a central market killed five people, while two died in a bombing in the commercial Karrada district. A car bomb in the Baiyaa neighborhood killed four, and four more died in a mortar attack north of the capital.

John Solomon, Maggie Ybarra and Jacqueline Klimas contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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