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Hagel Says Rescue Mission At Iraq's Mt. Sinjar Is No Longer Needed


A U.S. rescue mission to an Iraqi mountain appears to be no longer necessary. That's the announcement late today from the Pentagon. Tens of thousands of members of an Iraqi minority group fled to Mt. Sinjar in northern Iraq. They were under seige by Sunni militants who refer to themselves as the Islamic State or ISIL. NPR's David Welna Joins us now with details. And David, how does Secretary Hagel describe the current situation on Mt. Sinjar?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Robert, I have been traveling around the world with Secretary Hagel for the past weeks and when we arrived in Washington this evening, the Secretary said he had been talking with officials - high officials, and that the team of special operation forces that went to Mt. Sinjar today - about 20 of them - returned with an assessment that seemed to be much better than they had expected.

CHUCK HAGEL: Not only were there fewer people up there, but they were in relatively good condition. And the people up there credited our efforts with the water and the food and also buying space and time with those airstrikes against ISIL. So that's good news.

WELNA: And Hagel added that it's far less likely, for now at least, that the U.S. would undertake any kind of specific humanitarian rescue mission that had been planned. They thought that there were maybe 20 to 30,000 people up on Mt. Sinjar, and they're saying now that it may be several thousand. And it looks like they are not going ahead with it for now he said.

SIEGEL: David, do you have a sense of what the U.S. military would have been prepared to do in the way of a possible rescue mission had that been the course of action they decided on?

WELNA: Well, it would have been a question of whether they would have tried to do it by land or by airlift. In both cases it seemed that U.S. involvement in - military involvement in Iraq would have to be stepped up. There would have to be much more security provided. The question of whether there would be ground troops had come up, and these U.S. officials including the Defense Secretary looked visibly relieved that they would not have to press forward right now with such a rescue operation. They seem to feel that the people who have been trapped up on the mountain will be able to make their way on their own and with the help of the Peshmerga, Kurd militias that have been helping them.

SIEGEL: Well, then with an American rescue mission to Sinjar much less likely, what is the U.S. involvement there going forward on Mt. Sinjar and elsewhere?

WELNA: Well, Secretary Hagel was asked about that, and he said it's not over. It's not complete. They have said before that taking care of these people who were stranded on Mt. Sinjar was one of the reasons that they were going there but they were also concerned about the welfare of U.S. officials who were both in Erbil and also in Baghdad. That concern continues. And they were also concerned about critical infrastructure in Iraq. The question right now is whether they can do anything about this big piece of Iraq that's been carved out by the Islamic State forces - whether they would make any kind of counteroffensive or encourage the Iraqis to do so and arm them. Those questions are still unanswered.

SIEGEL: OK, thank you, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's David Welna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.