U.S. Special Forces Say Yazidi Situation “Not As Bad As We Thought”

Aug 14, 2014 at 2:23 PM ET

The unfolding crisis atop northern Iraq’s Mount Sinjar—where thousands of starving minority Yazidis have been under siege from Islamic State militants—has taken a slight turn.

After horrific images and stories of the Yazidis’ plight poured in over the past week, a small group of U.S. Army Special Forces and aid workers landed on the mountain yesterday to provide security. But their arrival may be seen as bittersweet, because they also deemed the current situation far less urgent than previously thought.

“There are far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, told The Guardian last night following the on-the-ground assessment. “An evacuation mission is far less likely.”

There had been talk of a rescue mission involving U.S. ground troops inside Iraq—something the Obama administration clearly wants to avoid at all costs. Speaking from Edgartown, Massachusetts, on Thursday, Obama said further humanitarian drops or evacuation missions would most likely not be needed.

The United Nations is not so optimistic. It deemed the situation in northern Iraq a “Level 3 Emergency”—meaning an increase in aid is on the way. The group added that 1.2 million Iraqis are now internally displaced, and because of how the crisis unfolded, they’re likely to stay that way.

The events leading up to the tragedy on Mount Sinjar are, sadly, somewhat of a trademark of fratricidal violence in Iraq. Residents who fled the town of Sinjar as the Islamic State, formerly ISIS, closed in have been speaking to AFP journalists. Some have said the onslaught was for their longtime neighbors who sold them out.

“The [non-Iraqi] jihadists were Afghans, Bosnians, Arabs and even Americans and British fighters,” said Sabah Hajji Hassan, a 68-year-old Yazidi who managed to flee the bloody offensive. “But the worst killings came from the people living among us, our [Sunni] Muslim neighbors.”

This type of neighbor-on-neighbor sectarian violence was a hallmark of the worst years of Iraq’s most recent civil war from 2006 to 2007. Families who had lived side by side for decades were, all of a sudden, turning on one another, unearthing long-held grudges under pressure from militants, or simply surfacing an undercurrent of sectarian hatred, inflamed by Iraqi politicians and the presence of occupying U.S. troops.

Slowing militant advances and liberating towns and cities from their grip is one thing, but rebuilding generations’ worth of mistrust between neighbors and fellow countrymen is another. Iraqis know this all too well.