The U.S. has begun airlifting humanitarian aid and conducting limited airstrikes in the attempt to protect Iraq's refugee populations of religious minorities. NPR's Tom Bowman talks with Robert Siegel about the possible policy options for the U.S. in Iraq.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The crisis of the Yazidis has forced the Obama administration to rethink its Iraq policy. Late today, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the U.S. has sent an additional 130 troops to the country. And joining me now is NPR Pentagon correspondent, Tom Bowan. Tom, what do we know about these new troops and their mission?
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Well, Robert, these troops will be at the city of Erbil and they'll be looking at the humanitarian mission there. Of course there have been airdrops of food and water to the Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain. What they're looking at is possible options beyond those airdrops of food and water.
SIEGEL: Does that mean that the additional troops will be there to assess the situation and see if the Obama administration might expand the military role to help those who are on the mountain who we just heard about?
BOWMAN: Absolutely. What I'm told is they'll look at perhaps creating a safe haven or a safe corridor to move the Yazidis off that mountain. And there's also an option of air lifting them off the mountain as well. There's no word on how long this assessment will take, but clearly they're moving beyond just airdropping food and water and looking for ways where they can actually, you know, save the Yazidi people. There were estimates of as many as 40,000 of them up there and it's very hot. They don't have adequate shelter. So again, they're looking at ways they can actually, I would say, rescue them.
SIEGEL: And Tom, when you use the word airlift, given where they are, would you assume that would be by helicopter?
BOWMAN: Possibly by helicopter, but I'm told that that's - the least likely option is airlifting them off. You know, you're talking thousands of people. It could be helicopters. It could be fixed-wing aircraft. So the more likely scenario is creating some sort of a safe haven or a safe corridor. And the reason they're going to Erbil is they're trying to see - you know, are there areas in Erbil, the city itself, where they could move these people and set up - let's say tents or some, you know, facilities that they could have these people stay in that would make them safer than of course being out on the mountain.
SIEGEL: Yesterday on this program the State Department's point man on Iraq said that the U.S. is providing weapons directly to the Kurds. Does that aid give the Kurds what they need?
BOWMAN: You know, it doesn't. They're sending a lot of small arms and ammunition to the Kurds, but what they really need are artillery and mortars and vehicles. They say they need that to push back the Islamic State fighters, and those fighters have all that kind of equipment. They basically looted Iraqi army depots to grab that equipment, some of which is American-made equipment. So I'm told that they're assessing right now whether to give heavier weapons to the Kurdish forces, but no word on when that would be delivered.
SIEGEL: The Obama administration has called this involvement limited, but with new troops going to northern Iraq, as the defense secretary announced today, is that questionable? Can it actually be limited?
BOWMAN: Well, we don't know yet. There are two missions now - the humanitarian mission and then protecting American citizens and military personnel and the city of Erbil. Those are the two urgent items at this point. But we're also looking beyond that. Once the - Iraq creates a new government, we expect that to shift to a train and assist mission. We don't know how long that will take.
SIEGEL: OK, thank you, Tom.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.