One of the most dramatic chapters in Iraq’s two-month-old conflict was winding down Thursday as the flow of civilians fleeing a jihadist siege dried up, freeing US-backed Kurdish forces for offensive action.
The UN refugee agency had said tens of thousands of civilians, many of them from the Yazidi religious minority, were trapped on Mount Sinjar by jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, which has overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria.
But spokesman Ned Cole said Thursday that “we can definitely say there’s been a decrease in the number of people crossing compared to the thousands we had been seeing each day.”
“It’s basically over, we’re waiting for the last people to cross and the US strikes to start bombing the Sinjar area,” a Kurdish security official said.
Pentagon press secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby had earlier said an American assessment of less than 20 military personnel determined that the number of people still trapped was lower than expected.
“The team has assessed that there are far fewer Yazidis on Mount Sinjar than previously feared, in part because of the success of humanitarian air drops, air strikes on (IS) targets, the efforts of the (Kurdish forces) and the ability of thousands of Yazidis to evacuate from the mountain each night over the last several days,” he said.
“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.”
Iraqi helicopters and Kurdish forces have been trying to reach those trapped by jihadists who are targeting Yazidis, Christians and other minorities, and Washington and its allies have been studying ways to bring them out.
Various countries are ramping up their efforts to aid the trapped civilians and Kurdish forces battling the militants, and the US has carried out air strikes since August 8.
But even once all civilians have escaped the mountain, major difficulties will remain.
– ‘From hunger to hunger’ –
Thousands of people have poured across a border bridge into camps in Iraq’s Kurdish region after trekking through neighbouring Syria to find refuge, most with nothing but the clothes on their backs.
Some women carried exhausted children, weeping as they reached the relative safety of the camps.
But the relief of reaching relative safety was tempered by the spartan conditions of the camps hurriedly erected by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities.
“We went from hunger in Sinjar to hunger in this camp,” said Khodr Hussein.
As the international outcry over the plight of the Yazidis mounted, Western governments had pledged to step up help for those trapped, and the United Nations declared a Level 3 emergency in Iraq, allowing it to speed up its response.
The US said Wednesday it had conducted a seventh airdrop of food and water for those remaining on the mountain, bringing the total aid delivered to the stranded Yazidis in coordination with the Iraqi government to more than 114,000 meals and 35,000 gallons of drinking water.
And Australia has also carried out an aid airdrop, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Thursday.
Washington has already said it will ship weapons to the Kurds to help them fight back against the jihadists, and France has followed suit.
– Pressure mounts on Maliki –
Washington meanwhile urged Iraqi prime minister designate Haidar al-Abadi to move swiftly to form a broad-based government able to unite Iraqis in the fight against the IS insurgents who have overrun large parts of the country.
Abadi, whose nomination was accepted by President Fuad Masum on Monday, has 30 days to build a team that will face the daunting task of defusing sectarian tensions and, in the words of US President Barack Obama, convincing the Sunni Arab minority that IS “is not the only game in town”.
The UN Security Council has expressed backing for Abadi’s nomination, calling it “an important step toward the formation of an inclusive government.”
And the office of top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on Wednesday released a July letter in which he called for incumbent premier Nuri al-Maliki to be replaced.
Maliki has defied growing international pressure to step aside and insisted it would take a federal court ruling for him to quit.
Sistani is revered by millions and has enormous influence among Iraq’s Shiite Arab majority.
But even before the release of the Sistani letter, analysts said Maliki had lost too much backing to stay in power.
International support has poured in for Abadi, most importantly from Tehran and Washington, the two main foreign powerbrokers in Iraq.