BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) – The possible evacuation of thousands of Iraqis under siege by extremist fighters in the country’s north is on hold after the United States completed an evaluation of the situation.
This follows a 24-hour mission by about 20 U.S. State Department and military personnel in Iraq’s Sinjar Mountains.
Once believed to be in the tens of thousands, the number of Yazidis found to be there is “now in the low thousands,” Brett McGurk, a deputy assistant secretary of state, told CNN Wednesday.
“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,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said, citing the success of humanitarian airdrops and airstrikes against the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
A humanitarian airdrop that took place on Wednesday “could very well be the last one,” Kirby said Thursday. The U.S. team that assessed the situation in the Sinjar Mountains found many pallets of unopened food and water.
Airstrikes will continue as needed, Kirby said, but the 130 U.S. troops sent earlier this week as an assessment team are now likely to return to their home bases.
With U.S. airstrikes keeping ISIS at bay and the help of Kurdish peshmerga forces, thousands of Yazidis have been able to evacuate the mountains, making a U.S.-assisted evacuation mission “far less likely,” Kirby said.
The State Department declared the siege over.
“The President said when he spoke to the American people we’re going to break the siege of this mountain, and we broke the siege of this mountain,” Kirby said.
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, told CNN’s “New Day” that while the operation is a success so far for Obama, it is a mistake to declare victory too early.
The crisis certainly is not what it was a week ago, thanks to the airstrikes and humanitarian airdrops, he said. The airstrikes have halted the advance of ISIS in some areas, bu the group is not broken, Jeffrey said.
The United Nations on Wednesday announced its highest level of emergency for a humanitarian crisis, saying the number of people on the run from ISIS is of grave concern.
It estimates that more than 400,000 people have been driven from their homes since June, when ISIS swept across the border from Syria into Iraq.
The group has waged a brutal campaign while seizing large swaths of northern and western Iraq, aiming to establish a caliphate — an Islamic state — that stretches from Syria to Iraq.
Of those displaced, more than 200,000 have poured into Dohuk province in recent weeks, where refugee camp populations have swelled since ISIS began its assault against Yazidis, Christians and Kurds.
Thousands of other refugees sought protection inside the northern Kurdish region of Iraq.
“To be blunt, we don’t have housing for all of them. We don’t have shelter,” a spokesman for the U.N. human rights commissioner, Edward Colt, told CNN at a camp near the Peshkhabour bridge where Iraqis are entering the area. “Thousands of tents are being erected as we speak.”
By declaring what it calls a “Level 3 Emergency,” the United Nations says it will trigger more resources to help.
The Yazidis fled last week as ISIS overran the city of Sinjar.dddd
A senior commander said ISIS fighters abducted more than 100 Yazidi women and children from the community.
The ISIS commander, who has knowledge of the events that unfolded, said the fighters killed a large number of men when they took over the town more than a week ago.
“At that time, they took Yazidi women and children, and I can confirm those women and children have entered Mosul,” the commander said by telephone. “…The Islamic State is taking this opportunity to call them to Islam.”
While CNN cannot independently confirm the claim, it follows reports by survivors who describe ISIS fighters grabbing families and separating the men from the women and children.
Stemming the tide
The plight of the Yazidis, coupled with the ISIS assault against Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region, prompted the United States to begin the targeted airstrikes.
The aim, according to President Barack Obama, is to help protect U.S. personnel in the area and to destroy ISIS positions around the mountains to ease the threat to minority groups.
The President this week ordered the military advisers to the Kurdish capital of Irbil to assess the humanitarian crisis.
The advisers, made up of Marines and special operations forces, joined hundreds of other American advisers already in the country advising Iraqi troops in their fight against ISIS, an offshoot of al Qaeda in Iraq.