US President Barack Obama has declared America broke the jihadist siege of Iraq’s Mount Sinjar, where thousands of civilians were trapped, but said air strikes against the militants will go on.
The UN refugee agency had said tens of thousands of civilians, many of them from the Yazidi religious minority, were at one point trapped on Mount Sinjar by jihadists of the Islamic State (IS) militant group, which has overrun swathes of Iraq and Syria.
“The situation on the mountain has greatly improved and Americans should be very proud of our efforts because of the skill and professionalism of our military and the generosity of our people, we broke the (IS) siege of Mount Sinjar,” Obama said on Thursday in a statement to reporters.
“We helped save many innocent lives.”
Obama said he didn’t expect there would be ongoing humanitarian air drops on the mountain, but did warn the air strikes, which were begun on August 8, will go on.
“We will continue air strikes to protect our people and facilities in Iraq,” he said, who had cited the risk to the US consulate in Arbil as a reason for the military intervention.
The US sent a military assessment team to Mount Sinjar, while it and other countries have dropped food and water to those stranded on the mountain.
But even once all civilians have escaped the mountain, major difficulties will remain.
Thousands of people have poured across a border bridge into camps in Iraq’s Kurdish region after trekking through neighbouring Syria to find refuge.
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.
Various countries are also ramping up their efforts to aid the Kurdish forces battling the militants, who have targeted minority groups in the north, including Yazidis and Christians.
In his remarks on Thursday, Obama also reiterated his call for an inclusive government to be formed and his backing for premier designate Haidar al-Abadi.
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”.
International support has poured in for Abadi, most importantly from Tehran and Washington, the two main foreign powerbrokers in Iraq.