Marine MV-22 Ospreys and Army helicopters arrived at an isolated airfield in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq Wednesday, poised to take part in a potential rescue attempt of trapped refugees from a mountain top.
Pentagon and White House officials said the Ospreys and the helicopters brought 129 additional U.S. troops – about 80 of them Marines -- to the Kurdish capital of Irbil Tuesday.
The aircraft were among the "options" being explored by the U.S. for rescuing thousands of members of the Yazidi sect trapped in the Sinjar mountains by members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, said that as many as four Ospreys were now at an airfield guarded by Kurdish peshmerga forces in the region. Warren declined to say how many Army helicopters arrived at the airfield, or whether they were Black Hawks or the larger Chinooks. He also declined to say how long the aircraft will remain in the region.
Warren said that recent U.S. airstrikes on ISIL targets around Sinjar "have slowed if not stopped ISIL's ability to inflict harm" on the refugees.
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes said the new troops in the Kurdish region "will make recommendations about how to follow through on an effort to get the people off that mountain and into a safe place."
Obama has ruled out the use of U.S. ground forces for a combat mission in Iraq but Rhodes said U.S. troops might be used to aid a humanitarian mission.
The deployment of ground forces on a mission to rescue the Yazidis would be "different than re-introducing U.S. forces in a combat role to take the fight to ISIL," Rhodes told reporters on Martha's Vineyard, where Obama was vacationing.
The 129 troops were sent by the U.S. Central Command and brought the number of U.S. troops now in Iraq to nearly 1,000, Warren said.
The troops include 277 of the 300 mostly Special Forces troops that Obama last month authorized to be sent to Iraq to conduct assessments of the ISIL threat and advise Iraqi forces. About 69 of those troops are now at a Joint Operations Center in Irbil and 93 are in a JOC in Baghdad. Another 90 are also in Baghdad and involved in assessments.
The U.S. also has a total of 458 troops involved in security assistance, mostly to protect U.S. facilities at the Baghdad airport and to bolster security for the U.S. Embassy. In addition, another 100 troops are at the Embassy in the Office of Security Cooperation to coordinate weapons sales.
When taken together, Warren said the total of U.S. military personnel now in Iraq was about 964. The Obama administration has said repeatedly that none will be put in a combat role.
The growing U.S. involvement has triggered increasing pledges of international support , including Australia's open consideration of sending combat troops.
"The murderous hordes of ISIL, now the Islamic State, are on the march," new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said in London after meeting with British defense officials on Iraq."
When asked if Australia would send troops to fight ISIL, Abbott said "we certainly don't rule that out."
British Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a holiday to return to London for meetings on the Iraq crisis. Royal Air Force C-130s have been flying airdrop missions to the trapped Yazidis.
"We need a plan to get these people off that mountain and get them to a place of safety," Cameron said. "I can confirm that detailed plans are now being put in place and are underway and that Britain will play a role in delivering them."
Shipments of French relief supplies were expected to arrive in Irbil Wednesday and French President Francois Hollande has also pledged to ship arms to the Kurds.
At the Pentagon, Col. Warren said that the Defense Department was not sending arms directly to the Kurdish Regional Government but was sending ammunition and small arms to the central government in Baghdad. He declined comment on several published reports that the CIA was arming the Kurds.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Kurds would soon be receiving armor-piercing weapons to attack vehicles seized by ISIL from the Iraqi army, rocket-propelled grenades and heavy machine guns.
In an interview with USA Today, Dempsey also declined to say which government agency would be supplying the weapons.
"The airstrikes have made it clear both to the Iraqi security forces and to the [peshmerga] and to [ISIL] that they're no longer uncontested," Dempsey said. "The pace at which they were advancing has been abated. It doesn't mean it will stay abated."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at email@example.com