By LUIS MARTINEZ and ELISE WIDERLITE
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has announced that the United States has sent a new 130 member military assessment team to Erbil in northern Iraq to determine what further assistance the U.S. can provide in easing the humanitarian crisis of thousands of Yazidis trapped at Mount Sinjar. For now, the United States has provided five airdrops of food and water to the Yazidis and conducted 18 airstrikes targeting ISIS fighters surrounding the mountain or who were approaching Erbil.
Addressing a group of Marines during a visit to Camp Pendleton in California, Hagel said the team had arrived in northern Iraq “to take a closer look and give a more in-depth assessment of where we can continue to help the Iraqis with what they’re doing and the threats that they are now dealing with.”
The new team is in addition to the 40 U.S. military personnel already in Erbil who for several weeks have been manning a Joint Operations Center with Kurdish military forces.
Hagel said the team would soon provide an assessment to Centcom that would make its way to the Pentagon “very shortly.”
It is similar in scope to the assessment teams sent to Baghdad in June to determine potential U.S. assistance to Iraqi Security forces in the wake of the surprising ISIS advance in northern Iraq that led to the capture of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.
At the time Pentagon officials stressed that the teams would provide useful intelligence to help determine whether U.S. military advisors should be sent to work with the Iraqi military. The assessments were completed weeks ago, but a decision on whether to proceed to that step has yet to be made by the White House.
The new deployment to Erbil will raise to 935 the number of U.S. military personnel now in Iraq, including 100 who were already in Iraq serving at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.
Hagel described the new team in Erbil as not going beyond the parameters President Obama has laid out for the earlier teams sent to Baghdad. He said the assessment team was “not a combat boots on the ground operation. As the president has made very clear, we are not going back into Iraq in any of the same combat missions dimensions that we once were in in Iraq.”
“We’re not going to have that kind of operation, but short of that there are some things that we are going to continue to do and we are doing,” said Hagel.
He said the team’s arrival in Erbil was “to find ways to assist and help advise Iraqi security forces which we have been doing.”
A defense official stressed that “these forces will not be engaged in a combat role” but will assess the scope of the humanitarian mission at Mount Sinjar and develop additional humanitarian assistance options beyond the airdrops.
The official said the team was “comprised of Marines and special operations forces from within the U.S. Central Command region.”
According to the official the team would coordinate with the State Department and USAID “to coordinate plans with international partners and non-government organizations committed to helping the Yazidi people.”