At the heart of the fight against the Islamic State (IS), the Kurds have long complained at the lack of adequate weapons as the raging Peshmerga battles with IS forces reaches a year. At the center of Kurdish irritation is their share of the $1.6bn Iraq Train and Equip Fund (ITEF) but more importantly that key weapons are not funneling through at a sufficient speed or volume from Baghdad.
In recent days, the US House of Representatives passed a controversial defense bill that facilitated direct arming of the Peshmerga and Sunni militia forces as part of the $612 billion defense policy bill for next year.
The House Armed Services Committee of the US Congress caused controversy when it proposed clauses into the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), referencing the Peshmerga and Sunni militias as “countries” in order make the direct provisioning of arms easier.
The bill was objected by the Obama administration who threatened to veto and drew strong rebuke from Iraqi politicians who considered this as a step to Iraq’s division. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, a historic thorn of US forces in Iraq, even threatened retaliation.
US Vice President Joe Biden, who ironically for years was a strong advocate of splitting Iraq into 3 distinct federal regions, stressed just last week that “all US military assistance in the fight against [ISIL] comes at the request of the Government of Iraq and must be coordinated through the Government of Iraq”.
The bill that was ultimately passed was rewritten to remove references to “country” and toned down any inference to the division of Iraq but nevertheless has proved just as contentious. The Peshmerga and Sunni tribal forces could directly receive $179 million of the US$715 million allocated to the Iraqi government.
At the same time, the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its own 2016 defense bill where strong support is expected for direct arming of the Peshmerga.
The Kurdistan leadership has attempted not to be drawn into the bill or the friction that it has caused for the Obama administration, with Kurdistan President, Massoud Barzani, declaring his satisfaction on White House assurances that “the necessary weapons” will be provided.
Although the bill is symbolic for the Kurds, in reality it is only a 25% share with the Sunnis. For Kurdish forces that are crucial to any victory against IS, a significant share should be provided by Baghdad that should not need US politicians or White House pressure to ensure Kurds receive a share of such arms.
At the same time, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the long established Kurdistan Region enshrined in Iraqi legislature and recognized internationally should not be compared with burgeoning and disparate Sunni forces. With no formally recognized Sunni force and some directly aligned with IS or deeply against Shia dominated Baghdad, who is the ultimate Sunni beneficiary of such arms?
The Kurdish apprehension at the lack of arms filtering from Baghdad is the tip of a much larger iceberg. The Kurds and Baghdad have been at loggerheads over oil payments even as a deal was struck in December. The lack of budget payments from Baghdad, including only a part payment for April, has hardly aided relations.
With Mosul firmly in IS hands, it remains to be seen of the sacrifices that the Kurds would be willing to make when Baghdad doesn’t fund the Peshmerga forces as per the constitution, doesn’t provide arms or even budget payments.
All this has a familiar tone. The US has tried to promote the principle of a unified Iraq at every turn since 2003 whilst ignoring reality, with the Kurds having to tip-toe between their important US allies and a Baghdad that they must work with but who appears not keen on any step that strengthen Kurdish hands or breaks the remaining umbilical cords that it has over the Kurds.
First Published: Kurdish Globe
Other Publication Sources: Various Misc