The crisis over who will be Iraq’s next prime minister faded in Baghdad on Tuesday after Iran joined the United States in embracing the appointment of Haider al Abadi to replace Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
But it was quickly replaced by growing concern that the effort to rescue tens of thousands of Yazidi refugees in northern Iraq was failing and would require far more resources than President Barack Obama indicated in a nationally televised speech last week.
The Pentagon dispatched an additional 130 U.S. military personnel to northern Iraq to “develop additional humanitarian assistance options,” the Obama administration announced late Tuesday, It was an indication that the current effort to drop fresh water and meals-ready-to-eat to the refugees, who at one time were thought to number 40,000, might soon grow larger.
It came as Great Britain announced it had sent aircraft, including Chinook helicopters, to the area and was engaged in “urgent planning” with the United States “to get those trapped on the mountainside to safety.”
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The precise number of refugees, most of whom fled into desolate mountains near the city of Sinjar Aug. 3 when militants from the Islamic State seized the city, has never been certain. U.S. officials, briefing reporters after Obama’s speech Thursday, said they believed an estimate from the United Nations that 40,000 were stranded was high. But independent aid officials in Baghdad said there might have been as many as 100,000 trapped.
On Tuesday night, U.S. Central Command announced that two C-17s and two C-130s dropped 14,112 military meals-ready-to-eat and 7,608 gallons of water to refugees. That brought the number of meals dropped since last week to nearly 100,000, Central Command said, and the amount of drinking water to more than 27,000 gallons. In addition, the British government said, two British C-130s dropped an additional 4,200 gallons of water.
The new deployment to northern Iraq includes Marines and special operations forces, but the troops “will not be engaged in a combat role,” the Pentagon said in a statement attributed to an unnamed senior defense official. “They will work closely with representatives from the U.S. Department of State and USAID to coordinate plans with international partners and non-government organizations committed to helping the Yazidi people,” the statement said.
The announcement came after the United Nations issued a bleak report about the situation in the Sinjar mountains. At least 35,000 refugees have made it out the mountains in the last three days, the United Nations refugee agency said. But 20,000 to 30,000 remain there, “without food, water or shelter.”
At a briefing for reporters in Geneva, the spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Adrian Edwards, said communities in northern Iraq had been inundated by tens of thousands of refugees from Sinjar and Zummar, another Yazidi city that was seized on Aug. 3 by the Islamic State. The mayor of the city of Zakho, a city of 350,000, told the U.N. that 100,000 Yazidi refugees were now sheltering in his town, Edwards said.
“The new arrivals are exhausted, dehydrated and many have suffered sun or heat stroke,” Edwards said. Daytime temperatures in the mountains hover between 105 and 115 degrees Fahrenheit, Edwards said.
The desperation of the situation was underscored by the crash of an Iraqi military helicopter that had landed in the mountains Tuesday, carrying a Yazidi member of the Iraqi parliament and a reporter from the New York Times.
The helicopter was mobbed by refugees who crowded onto the craft, seeking a way off the mountain. Overloaded, it crashed. The parliamentarian, Vian Dakhil, who had made an emotional plea for assistance a week ago on the floor of Parliament, was injured, as was the reporter, Alissa Rubin, who suffered a concussion and broken wrists, her paper reported. The pilot of the aircraft, a member of the Iraqi army, was killed.
Assisting the Yazidi refugees was one of two missions Obama outlined for the U.S. military when he authorized U.S. operations inside Iraq for the first time since U.S. troops ended their presence there in 2011. The initial effort included air drops of water and food by U.S. cargo aircraft as well as air strikes on Islamic State positions thought to threaten the refugees or Kurdish militia attempting to reach them.
On Tuesday, a U.S. drone struck an Islamic State mortar position that reportedly was firing on Kurdish forces protecting Yazidi families. It was the 14th airstrike in northern Iraq reported by U.S. Central Command in the past five days.
The renewed urgency over aiding the Yazidis came as the fear of violence over the selection of a new prime minister receded in Baghad after Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni signaled that he backed the selection of Abadi to replace Maliki as prime minister.
Iran’s support is crucial for any national Shiite Muslim leader in Iraq, and Iranian officials have stepped in previously to keep Maliki in office. A broad alliance of Shiite political parties chose Abadi as their leader, ignoring Maliki’s quest to retain his office.
Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington noted that Iran’s backing of Abadi left Maliki little room to maneuver to keep his job.
“Maliki cannot remain in the premiership in defiance of every other Shi’a party, militia and Iran,” the analysts wrote.
On Monday, Maliki accused Abadi of a power grab and indicated he’d fight Abadi’s nomination. But his tone changed significantly on Tuesday. He released a statement in which he told the military to “stay away from the political crisis,” which eased fears that Maliki would use the armed forces to keep himself in power.
Abadi, meanwhile, moved to form a cabinet within a week. He released a statement praising Maliki’s leadership and said that Maliki would have a continuing role in the government.
The statement did not say what kind of position Maliki would have.
On Tuesday, far fewer Iraqi soldiers and police were out patrolling the streets, and military and political leaders sensed that Maliki was preparing to step down.
Khameni’s embrace of Abadi mirrored the American government’s hopes for the prime minister-elect. President Barack Obama on Monday congratulated Abadi and praised Iraqi President Fouad Massoum for selecting him.
One senior Kurdish security official, whose forces have been battling the Islamic State along multiple fronts for nearly two weeks, welcomed the apparent decision to move forward without Maliki in selecting a new prime minister.
“Thank God, it looks like this Maliki nightmare is over,” the official said, asking not to be quoted by name because he did not have permission to comment from Kurdish President Masoud Barzani’s office.
“Moving forward will mean more assistance from the Americans, but it will also give new leadership and a sense to urgency to the Iraqi army,” the official said. “Resolving the succession issue will allow the Iraqi army to get back to work.”
The official said that as the crisis has unfolded, Iraqi army officers have appeared distracted and uncertain about how to proceed because of Maliki’s tight control over the military and uncertainty about how unified the government would remain.
“These distractions particularly hurt us in Diyala province, where we coordinate more with the Iraqi army than we do in the north,” he said, a reference to a region of eastern Iraq where on Monday the Islamic State captured the town of Jalawla. “Territory was lost along that front, I think, because the Iraqi army seemed unsure about its leadership situation.”
Aymenn al Tamimi, an analyst of Iraqi jihadist groups and militias for the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, noted that Iran’s patience with Maliki had been wearing thin in recent months as Iraq’s security forces suffered embarrassing defeats to the Islamic State.
“Iran certainly did not want to see a third of the country fall outside of government control and understands there needs to be some consensus in Baghdad to move forward,” he said.