Marines had prepared for major rescue on Mount Sinjar

USS PELEIU, At Sea - U. S. Marines with Co. K, Battalion Landing Team 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, attached to 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit walk toward an MV-22B Osprey, belonging to Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 262 (Reinforced), during Amphibious Landing Exercise 15 aboard the USS Peleliu, at sea, Oct. 2, 2014. PHIBLEX 15 is an annual, bilateral training exercise conducted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, U.S. Marines and Navy to strengthen interoperability across a range of capabilities to include disaster relief and contingency operations.

WASHINGTON – Until it was called off at the last minute, U.S. Marines prepared to land aircraft on Mount Sinjar in northern Iraq in August for one of the largest evacuation operations ever – the rescue of thousands of trapped refugees, the Marines’ top officer disclosed.

“The plan was to pick everyone off the mountain,” Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, told USA TODAY in disclosing details for the complex and risky operation for for the first time. “It was going to be a ’round the clock operation.

“It would have been the largest evacuation that I can think of,” Amos said. “It could have been very dangerous as well.”

The refugees were able to escape to safety before the operation was launched after more than a week of U.S. airstrikes and help from Iraqi ground troops.

The operation represents the type of rapid response mission the Marine Corps will be called on increasingly to perform now that all combat troops have left Iraq and their numbers are declining in Afghanistan.

To accomplish the mission in a region seized by Islamic State militants, Marines would have had to secure an area where aircraft could land continuously and pilots would have had to fly in dangerous conditions to pluck the refugees off the mountain over a period of days.

The Islamic State, in control of parts of Iraq and Syria, had driven the refugees, a tiny religious sect called Yazidis, out of their village and onto the mountain, where they were surrounded by the extremists.

Had the refugees remained trapped, a Marine-led task force planned to pluck them off the mountain with about two dozen V-22 Ospreys, tilt-rotor aircraft that can land like a helicopter and fly like a fixed wing aircraft, Amos said.

A dozen aircraft were flown from Afghanistan to Kuwait to participate in the operation.

The operation is an example of how the Marines Corps is refocusing on its expeditionary roots after more than a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has created quick-response task forces to support commands in Africa and the Middle East for missions that include evacuating U.S. personnel or responding to humanitarian crises.

The unit supporting Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, will have about 2,300 personnel when fully staffed.

It is common after a land war for the Marine Corps to nudge back to its original role, said Allan Millett, a University of New Orleans professor who has written extensively on military history.

The Marine Corps is sensitive to perceptions that it performs a mission similar to the Army. It has weathered efforts in Washington to eliminate or shrink it, particularly after World War II, Korea and Vietnam, thanks to powerful defenders in Congress and world crises that underscore its value as an expeditionary force, analysts say.

“The messiness of the world is really playing into the Marine Corps message,” said Dakota Wood, an analyst at Heritage Foundation. “There’s plenty of demand for them.”

A shrinking defense budget has forced the Marines to decline in size to a force of 182,000 by 2016, down from about 202,000 in 2010.

Proportionally, they are not taking cuts as dramatic as the Army, Wood said. “Everyone wants these crisis response forces,” he said.

In July, Marines evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli because of escalating violence. Earlier this year, Marines evacuated embassy personnel in Sudan. And in 2013, they conducted humanitarian operations after a massive typhoon hit the Philippines.

“We’ve always had an expeditionary mindset,” said Amos, who this month will complete his four-year tour as commandant. “That’s never waned.”

Jim Michaels, USA TODAY


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