(CBS) - U.S. troops landed Wednesday among refugees who remain stranded and starving on a mountaintop in Iraq.
Several thousand ethnic Yazidis ran to Mount Sinjar after an Islamic extremist group known as ISIS overran much of northern Iraq. President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes last week to push ISIS back.
A team of about 20 American Green Berets has just completed a reconnaissance mission on Mount Sinjar. They spent nearly the entire day trying to determine what it will take to get thousands of desperate refugees off the mountain.
Until now, the U.S. has relied on nightly air drops of food and water to keep the refugees alive, but that will soon be replaced by a rescue operation that will put American troops in harm's way.
An advance team of Marine Osprey vertical takeoff and landing aircraft plus several detachments of Green Berets arrived Tuesday in Erbil in northern Iraq to draw up plans to both airlift refugees off the mountain and establish a land corridor they can take to safety.
Both plans will have to contend with ISIS fighters who have laid siege to the mountains and are firing both on the refugees and on helicopters. U.S. warplanes have been conducting strikes against ISIS positions around the mountains since last weekend and more strikes would almost certainly be part of a rescue operation.
The U.S. military has done this before. After the first Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein drove thousands of Kurds into the mountains of southern Turkey and the U.S. mounted a rescue operation that first delivered supplies to the refugees in the mountains and them brought them down to tent cities.
This time it is ISIS that has driven civilians into the mountains, and this time the U.S. will be joined by Britain, France and Australia as well as Iraqi and Kurdish forces. But as always, it is the American military that has unique capabilities like the Osprey, which can fly faster and farther than any other helicopter.
Obama has promised not to send American troops back into combat in Iraq, but one of his top advisers said Wednesday this would be a rescue operation and that makes it different.
However, we learned late Wednesday that the Green Berets' reconnaissance mission found far fewer refugees than feared. As a result, a rescue mission is far less likely.
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