(CNSNews.com) – Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes acknowledged Wednesday that if U.S. troops now on a humanitarian mission in northern Iraq come under fire they would protect themselves – but he stressed that “the purpose and the mission that they are going to Iraq for is not to engage in combat.”
A 130-strong military “assessment team,” the latest deployment of troops to Iraq since June, arrived in Erbil on Tuesday to evaluate ways to rescue tens of thousands of civilians trapped on Mount Sinjar, some 100 miles west of the city.
Briefing reporters in Edgartown, Mass. – President Obama is vacationing in Martha’s Vineyard – Rhodes was asked, “if that kind of mission is launched and they come under fire, they would be in combat, would they not?”
“As a bottom line, force protection is always a mission for U.S. personnel in any country in the world,” he replied.
Rhodes said the troops were not in northern Iraq to engage in combat with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS/ISIL) fighters but “to make an assessment on a temporary basis about how we move that population off the mountain and into a safe place.”
He agreed that creating a safe corridor was among possible options.
“I don’t want to get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet. We’re going to rely on what the teams report back in terms of their assessment. But you look at corridors, you look at airlifts, you look at different ways to move people who are in a very dangerous place on that mountain to a safer position.”
A reporter wanted to know whether Obama would consider sending more U.S. troops to establish a safe corridor, if that option was settled upon.
Rhodes reiterated that Obama has ruled out “reintroducing U.S. forces into combat, on the ground.”
He noted that “there are ways in which we can coordinate with Iraqi forces on the ground, for instance, in seeking to combat the threat from ISIL and to bring people to a safe space.”
Rhodes said the White House would be “very transparent” as decisions are made on the best way to bring the endangered civilians to safety.
“I think the principle holds that we’re not putting ground forces in a combat role in Iraq. We’re using U.S. military personnel to assess what the best way is to bring people to safety and what the best way is to provide them with humanitarian assistance,” he said.
“But again, always, force protection is a mission for U.S. personnel wherever they are in the world.”
‘A very dangerous place’
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf also underscored that the 130 newly-arrived U.S. troops would not have a combat role, saying that “a rescue effort is very different from combat.”
“These U.S. military personnel that have just gone in are assessing the best way to bring these people to safety, whether that’s some sort of airlift, whether that’s a humanitarian corridor,” she told a daily briefing. “They’re looking at the options, they’ll present them to the president, and then he’ll make decisions about how – the best way that we can help do that will be.”
Asked whether she would acknowledge that the Mount Sinjar area, surrounded by ISIS fighters, was in fact a “combat zone,” Harf agreed that “clearly, there’s a lot of fighting going around it.”
“I know what you’re trying to get at here, but I will be clear again: The president has said there will be no troops engaged in combat roles, and you know what that means,” she said.
“But we want to be very clear that just because they’re not in combat roles, it doesn’t mean that they’re not operating in a very dangerous place.”
Harf conceded that any rescue effort using helicopters would need to be “coordinated with our assessment team on the ground.”
Asked whether she would rule out the possibility of U.S. troops providing security on the ground, she replied, “I’m not going to rule it in either.”
It was “certainly conceivable” that Iraqi Kurdish forces on the ground could provide security during such a rescue operation, she said.
Harf tied Obama’s insistence that the mission will not constitute combat to his role as the president who brought American troops home from Iraq at the end of 2011.
“One of the reasons that we are so focused on making clear what we will and won’t do here is because the president has been very clear about what needs to be – what needs to happen going forward in Iraq, what we’ve done in this administration in terms of bringing troops home, and being very clear with people about why this is not a repeat of that [war], why that’s not going to turn into that.”
“And I think that’s very important for him and for us to be very clear about that, and that’s why we keep harping on it.”
Meanwhile U.S. military airstrikes have continued in northern Iraq. Harf said a total of 24 have occurred since the mission began – 17 "in defense of Erbil" and seven relating to the situation on Mount Sinjar.
Obama last week laid down three conditions for airstrikes: to stop ISIS fighters from advancing on Erbil; to protect U.S. forces or personnel anywhere in Iraq, including the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil; and to help local forces to protect the civilians trapped on the mountain.