WASHINGTON -- Kurdish fighters on the frontlines against the Islamic State group have been successful thus far but urgently need expanded support from the U.S. and other nations, according to the top Kurdish representative in the U.S.
In a small briefing with reporters here Thursday, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman outlined additional international moves that her government believes are necessary to push back against the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Rahman said the Kurdish leadership sought heavy machine guns; armored vehicles; long-range high-powered rifles; mortar dynamite launchers and shells for them; tank, artillery and rocket munitions; non-lethal equipment like night goggles; and other supplies.
In a direct challenge to the Obama administration's policy thus far, she added that the Kurds would like those weapons to be delivered directly to them, not to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. She also emphasized the need for an international role in Iraq by saying that while countries battling ISIS are understandably nervous about boosting their airstrikes against the group, given the brutality with which it killed a captured Jordanian pilot, other nations need to share the burden of the ISIS fight.
"Why should it be only the peshmerga who are sacrificed?" Abdul Rahman said, using the Kurdish term for her region's fighters. She added that while the Kurds appreciated U.S. support, they saw it as limited compared to American capabilities: During the height of the 2003 Iraq war, she claimed, the U.S. had been launching 2,800 airstrikes per day in Iraq. That's a much greater number than the total number of strikes against the Islamic State, which a defense official told The Huffington Post was 2,585 as of Feb. 25. However, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command disputed Abdul Rahman's figure in a Saturday email to The Huffington Post, saying that the number of strikes per day never approached 2,800 during any point in the 2003-2011 Iraq War. The spokesman said the annual total peaked at 1,447 in 2007.
The Kurdistan Regional Government controls an autonomous region in northern Iraq. ISIS captured a significant part of that region last summer and the U.S. began bombing the extremists in August to protect the Kurdish capital of Erbil and a Kurdish minority group, the Yezidis, who were at risk of mass slaughter. The Kurds have since regained most of the territory they lost. Their success has won them significant praise abroad, both in Europe and in Washington.
The Obama administration has celebrated the Kurds' accomplishments. A State Department spokesperson told The Huffington Post in an email earlier this month that the Kurdish fighters' "continued success is essential and remains a top priority for both the Iraqi Government and the Coalition" battling ISIS.
But critics of the administration say it is hampering the Kurds' fight by not arming them directly, a charge the Kurdish representative echoed.
The administration sends weapons intended for Kurdish fighters to Baghdad first to be inspected by the central Iraqi government. It says this is necessary because U.S. law requires all arms transfers occur on a government-to-government basis -- which means arming an autonomous Kurdish region cannot be U.S. policy. Abdul Rahman said that policy creates unnecessary delays that diminishes Kurdish forces' ability to tackle ISIS. "We're part of Iraq," she added. "If Baghdad needs to inspect the weapons, they can do so at Erbil International Airport."
She cautioned against turning Washington's "One Iraq" policy -- under which the U.S. has urged the Kurds to fix disputes with Baghdad over issues like oil revenues -- into a "Baghdad First" policy.
Republican lawmakers are working on legislation that would enhance U.S. support for the Kurds. Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, introduced a bill in November to permit the U.S. to directly arm the Kurds, and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a prominent member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is reportedly plans to propose a $500 million package for the KRG.
"Neither the [Iraqi army] nor the Kurds can defeat ISIL alone," said the State Department spokesperson. "They must work together, and that's why it's critical that Kurdish equipping efforts are coordinated with the central government. This is especially true as offensive operations begin in disputed boundary areas." Such areas are claimed by both the central government and Erbil and may become contested once ISIS is removed from them. Human Rights Watch said in a report released Thursday that the Kurds seemed to be moving to integrate some areas they had captured from ISIS into their own territory by preventing Arab refugees from those areas from returning.
The spokesperson noted that the Obama administration has already provided the Kurds with some heavy weapons "that we could source quickly and that the Kurds could effectively use with minimal training," in addition to training, advising and air support. The U.S. is also training three Kurdish brigades that are receiving $350 million in equipment. Other nations are also sending equipment to the Kurds in coordination with Baghdad -- notably Germany, which broke with its own post-war ban on sending weapons to conflict zones to do so.
Washington's reluctance to directly arm the Kurds is thought to stem from its fear of empowering the Kurds to the extent that they could fully break with Baghdad. Asked about Kurdish independence Thursday, Abdul Rahman indicated that it remained on the Erbil government's agenda. But she said even the first step of that process -- a referendum in the Kurdish region -- could not be taken in the midst of the war with ISIS.
UPDATE: Feb. 28, 1:15 p.m. -- This story has been updated with a statement from the U.S. Air Forces Central Command disputing Abdul Rahman's claims about the number of daily U.S. airstrikes during the Iraq War.