In a week that has seen tragedy after crisis after tragedy in the headlines, good news has been hard to come by. But on Thursday, there were unexpectedly positive reports that thousands of refugees are now safe, and a political disaster has been averted for now.
Two crises have consumed Iraq for the last several months, both feeding off of each other and making the other much more difficult to quell. On the one hand, militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) has been sweeping across the country, taking territory and inspiring fear. On the other hand, the political machine in Baghdad has been frozen, as the Iraqi parliament struggled to form a new government after elections earlier this year.
In the last few weeks, the world at large suddenly became aware of the plight of the Yazidi people — a small religous sect, with most of its members in Iraq — that had been forced to flee the city of Mosul when ISIS fighters took it over. Under the threat of death should they not convert to Islam, thousands of members of the religion fled to the relative safety of Mount Sinjar, where they became trapped without food or water. Last week, the United States launched a series of airdrops of supplies and a simultaneous campaign to slow or halt ISIS’ advance and clear a path for the Yazidi’s escape. The latter mission, the Obama administration said on Thursday, has been a success.
“Because of the skill and professionalism of our military –- and the generosity of our people –- we broke the ISIL siege of Mount Sinjar; we helped vulnerable people reach safety; and we helped save many innocent lives,” President Obama said in a statement from Martha’s Vineyard, using the government’s preferred acronym to refer to ISIS. Though many had worried that an extended campaign would be necessary to get the Yazidi off of Sinjar, the Marines and Special Forces that landed on the mountain on Wednesday found a much better scenario than they had imagined. Rather than upwards of 30,000 civilians needing assistance, instead they found “somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000,” according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby. “I’d also add that a number of them, perhaps up to 2,000 or so — and, again, this is an estimate — reside there and may not want to leave.”
Kirby explained the disparity as being due to the fact that “certainly more than 1,000 or so every night were leaving the mountain with Peshmerga help, again, because of the security and the sustenance that we provided.” That discovery has led the U.S. to believe that additional aid drops, which had deposited more than xxx in food and water, will be unneeded. “Because of these efforts, we do not expect there to be an additional operation to evacuate people off the mountain, and it’s unlikely that we’re going to need to continue humanitarian air drops on the mountain,” Obama continued. “The majority of the military personnel who conducted the assessment will be leaving Iraq in the coming days.”
On the political front, there was also much welcomed news. Earlier this week, newly elected Iraqi president Fuad Masum selected lawmaker Hayder al-Abadi to form a new government, rather than caretaker prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki has served two terms as Iraq’s prime minister, enjoying backing from both the United States and Iran, and was seeking a third. But both governments had become disillusioned with his heavy-handed rule, crushing of his political opposition, and blatant preference for members of his own Shiite faith over the minority Sunni Arab and Kurdish populations.
Seeing his support faltering, including in the form of a letter from prominent Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani, there were fears that Maliki would launch some form of coup to retain power. Those fears seemed to be well-founded when Maliki over the weekend ordered tanks and Iraqi special forces to surround the Green Zone. But on Thursday, Maliki instead chose to stand before television cameras and announce that after eight years in power, he would be stepping aside, preventing a potentially deadly clash over control of Iraq.
“I withdraw my candidacy for prime minister in favor of Haider al-Abadi, in order to safeguard the unity and stability of Iraq and the political process,” Maliki said. “I will be a soldier in defense of Iraq, and will support my brother Haider al-Abadi’s nomination for prime minister.” Maliki also agreed to withdraw the lawsuit he had filed in Iraq’s courts to challenge the constitutionality of Abadi’s appointment, his spokesman announced.
This isn’t all to say that Iraq is now magically fixed. Yazidi leaders warn that the crisis isn’t over. Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi member of Parliament and a Yazidi who launched into prominence with a tearful call for help for her people, says that the U.S.’ new assessment of the situation is off. “It’s better now than it had been, but it’s just not true that all of them are safe — they are not,” she told the New York Times. “Especially on the south side of the mountain, the situation is very terrible. There are still people who are not getting any aid.” In the estimate she gave, there are still up to 80,000 Yazidi still in danger — though earlier estimates had placed the maximum in danger at 40,000.
So too, the danger from ISIS still looms large in Iraq, where they continue to control vast swaths of territory, including several cities and Iraq’s largest dam. And Abadi still has to actually form a government, a prospect that would make even the most seasoned politician blanche. But the very fact that good news is coming from Iraq at all is a much needed change of pace from the weeks and months of a seemingly unending downward spiral.