An Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter takes position on the front line Aug. 12 in Bashiqa. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye / AFP)
After five days of intense air operations over northern Iraq, military officials say they’ve seen no use of anti-aircraft weaponry fired on U.S. aircraft, the Pentagon said Tuesday.
“Anti-aircraft threats are something we’re always concerned about and American airman take great care to make sure it is mitigated,” said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. “I am not aware of any attempted [anti-aircraft] attacks” by the Islamic State, Warren said.
President Obama’s Aug. 7 order to ramp up U.S. airstrikes, humanitarian air drops and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance flights over Iraq’s Kurdish region has heightened concerns about the anti-aircraft capability of the Islamic militants on the ground. Humanitarian drops typically require flying at a low altitude.
The militants are well-armed with American-made weapons that were provided to Iraqi army units years ago but seized by the Islamic State in June when Iraqi units abandoned their bases across the northern part of the country.
Warren questioned the accuracy of some reporting that suggested Islamic State fighters have seized man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADS.
“We know we have never given MANPADS to the [Iraqi Security Forces],” Warren said.
Despite no reports of anti-aircraft fire, U.S. military planners remain cautious and are reluctant to mount a large-scale helicopter evacuation of an estimated 40,000 Iraqi Yazidis, a religious minority group, trapped on a mountain and under siege from militant fighters.
“An operation like that, we’d need to know more about specifically what is happening on the ground. As you know, we are conducting regular [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] operations through the area and as we can develop a picture of what is on the ground there, we can start making decisions” on potential further operations, Warren said.
Islamic State militants reportedly targeted a Kurdish Peshmerga helicopter with small-arms fire last week as it tried to deliver humanitarian aid.
Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, director of operations for the Joint Staff, told reporters Monday that small-arms fire is expected because of the density and position of Islamic State units.
“It does not surprise me that there will be small-arms fired during the ingress or the egress of those aircraft, just because of the way [the Islamic State] has formed formations on the ground,” Mayville said.
The U.S. Navy and Air Force are providing nearly constant air coverage over northern Iraq. Fighter jets have dropped at least 20 bombs on militant artillery and mortar positions, armored vehicles and convoys, Warren said.
On Monday night, U.S. aircraft conducted a fifth airdrop of food and water for thousands of Iraqi Yazidis. That involved one C-17 and three C-130 cargo aircraft that together dropped a total of 76 bundles of supplies, according to the U.S. Central Command.
U.S. fighter jet have escorted all aircraft conducting airdrops, CENTCOM officials said.
To date, in coordination with the government of Iraq, the U.S. military has delivered more than 85,000 meals and more than 20,000 gallons of fresh drinking water to the Yazidi refugees.
Obama said resolving the humanitarian crisis may require a safe-passage corridor to bring thousands of Yazidis safely through territory controlled by the militants. Some experts say that will require ground forces, close-air support and, potentially, major combat.
Pentagon officials have declined to comment on any planning that may be underway to provide security for such a safe-passage corridor.