WASHINGTON -- Visiting the U.S. for the first time in three years, the leader of one of the chief forces combating the Islamic State group had a message on Wednesday for his hosts in Washington: Don't forget who's making the sacrifices in this fight.
"This has not been an easy task," said Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, at an invite-only event co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and the United States Institute of Peace.
Barzani is the commander-in-chief of the Kurdish peshmerga forces, which have retaken significant territory from the Islamic State group since last summer with the help of airstrikes and other support from a U.S.-led coalition. A former peshmerga fighter himself, Barzani said they have lost more than 1,200 fighters in that effort and 7,000 more have been wounded. He emphasized that those fighters desperately need arms from the U.S. and other countries battling the Islamic State group.
The Iraqi Kurdish leader added that his region -- which is rich in oil but has faced budget difficulties because of squabbles with the central government -- is overwhelmed by concerns beyond just security. He noted that the relatively safe area has attracted thousands of refugees, including 250,000 from neighboring Syria along with ethnic and religious minorities from other parts of Iraq, who face particular risks from the Islamic State extremists.
"I call upon the U.S. and our friends in the international community to come help the Kurdistan region with these needs," Barzani said, speaking through a translator. He added that he would rather see refugees stay in the area and be protected than go through the difficult process of winning asylum in the West. "Either we live freely in our country or we will die together," he said.
Barzani's comments come amid accusations on the Hill that the Obama administration is failing to fully meet the Iraqi Kurds' military needs. Lawmakers in recent days have mounted their most serious challenge yet to a cornerstone of current U.S. strategy: working closely with the government of Iraq. At issue is the question of whether the U.S. should provide weapons to the Kurdish peshmerga directly, without first sending them to the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. The administration has emphasized that it is working to bolster coordination between Baghdad and the Kurds, and has noted that it cannot legally transfer weapons overtly to an entity other than a central government.
That left critics with just one option: change the law to make that a possibility in this specific case. They took it.
The House made its move through the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, which was voted out of the House Armed Services Committee last week. The NDAA proposes mandating that 25 percent of all U.S. military assistance to Iraq next year go directly to the Kurds and to Sunni fighters, groups that have both felt marginalized by the Shiite-run government in Baghdad for years. The proposal also makes it possible for the secretary of defense to increase the proportion going to the Sunnis and Kurds if he and the secretary of state cannot confirm that Iraq is politically including those minorities.
The upper chamber also got involved in the issue on Tuesday, when Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced their own proposal to temporarily allow the U.S. to directly arm the Kurds.
But though Barzani's government has previously criticized the policy -- with his new representative to Washington telling reporters in her first press briefing that waiting for weapons to arrive from Baghdad dangerously slowed down the re-arming of the peshmerga -- the president on Wednesday declined to wade into the issue.
Asked by Kurdish outlet Rudaw whether he had secured any commitments on a change to the policy from President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden when he met with them Tuesday, Barzani responded, "Both the vice president and the president want the peshmerga to get the right weapons and ammunition. ... The important point here is that the peshmerga get weapons. How they will come, in which way, that’s not as important as the fact that peshmerga need weapons to be in their hands."
That vindication for the Obama administration came just days after events back in Iraq had already threatened the legislators' plans to directly send arms to Kurdistan. Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, complicated the effort to prove that Congress cared more about the Kurds than the White House -- a serious competition in U.S. politics these days -- over the weekend when he told the Associated Press during a Baghdad visit that the Hill may reconsider the provision in the 2016 defense bill.
Speaking after meetings with the central Iraqi government, McCaul said Sunday he wants to identify "a way to streamline the process of getting the weapons to both the Sunni tribes and the [Kurds] ... while at the same time not undermining the government of Iraq in Baghdad."
His comment came after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reportedly complained to Biden about the House's 25 percent plan, and the Iraqi parliament voted to reject the proposal. Kurdish and Sunni political parties were not present for the vote, as they had staged a walkout.
Prominent Shiite clerics in Iraq have also condemned the allocation outlined in the NDAA, raising the fear -- which U.S. officials described to The Huffington Post in detail in the fall -- that Shiite militias might reactivate their campaign against U.S. forces in the country.
Though the bill became slightly less controversial after it dropped an initial reference to the Kurds and Sunnis as "countries," that language continues to be used by the proposal's critics in Iraq.
The administration has repeatedly said that it would like Iraq to remain united and does not at this time support the creation of an independent Kurdish state, long a dream for Iraq's Kurds. Obama and Biden reiterated that policy in a Tuesday meeting with Barzani, according to a White House statement. The Kurdish president said Wednesday that eventual independence through a peaceful referendum remained his goal.
"The unity of Iraq depends on the peoples of Iraq and how democratic Iraq would be," Barzani added. "That unity is voluntary and not compulsory."
The idea of dividing Iraq remains politically polarizing in that country, even as Washington politicians -- apparently unaware that they no longer exercise supreme control there -- occasionally speak of splitting it up for U.S. ends. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), a candidate for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, provided a striking example in March when he spoke of incentivizing the anti-Islamic State fight for the Kurds by simply promising them a country.
Barzani said Wednesday that ties between Iraq's autonomous Kurds and its central government were "now much better, but at the same time not without problems." He pointed specifically to Baghdad's failure to give the Kurds their full due from the country's oil revenues, a commitment the U.S.-friendly Iraqi prime minister made in December to end months of distrust between the central and regional governments.
Barzani also commented on progress against the Islamic State. He said his peshmerga forces would do "whatever we can" to overcome the next major hurdle for the U.S.-led coalition fighting the extremist group: retaking Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. The Pentagon has struggled to clarify the timeline for that effort after facing Iraqi pushback over assessments it shared with reporters. Barzani said he would not provide details on planning for the Mosul operation.
The last major victory against the Islamic State was last month in Tikrit, a Sunni-majority town that the group had held for months. The Islamic State was eventually pushed out in an operation controversially dominated by Shiite militias loyal to the central government and to Iran, who in some cases have been as brutal as the Islamic State itself.
For now, the Iraqi government is desperately attempting to retain control of the country's largest oil refinery, Beiji, a key resource which will be tactically important in retaking Mosul.
Barzani is in Washington for his first trip since April 2012. It is his first visit since the U.S. became involved in Iraq again to combat the Islamic State, and also his first since the U.S. took the step of removing his political party and the other main political actor in the Kurdish region from the terror list -- where they had landed as a result of what one State Department official described to HuffPost as an unintended consequence of the far-reaching Patriot Act.
The Kurdish leader is nearing the end of an extended term as his autonomous region's president. Asked by a Human Rights Watch representative whether it might be time for a change in leadership, he said that was in the hands of the Kurdish parliament and that a transition might be difficult during the war against the Islamic State.
UPDATE: 5/7 -- Barzani's Wednesday remarks did not reflect a change in Iraqi Kurdish policy, a Kurdish official told HuffPost Thursday. The official said that though the president chose not to criticize the Obama administration's current policy or endorse the congressional proposals at the Atlantic Council event, the Kurds in Iraq would still like to see weapons shipped directly to them instead of first going through Baghdad. The Kurdish president met with Boxer and Ernst after his Atlantic Council appearance to thank them for introducing their proposal, the Kurdish official added.