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Have The Kurdish Militias Battling IS Lost Their Way?

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers pose with a flag belonging to Islamic State after they regained control of an area west of Kirkuk in Iraq from the Islamist extremists earlier this year.

Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers pose with a flag belonging to Islamic State after they regained control of an area west of Kirkuk in Iraq from the Islamist extremists earlier this year.

Since Islamic State (IS) militants began the surge that captured vast swaths of Iraq last summer, Iraqi Kurdish militias -- known as the Peshmerga -- have emerged as a key ally and proxy force for the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition in northern Iraq.

In August, the United States reversed its policy of banning the direct transfer of arms to the Iraqi Kurds and requested that Australia help transport arms and munitions to the Peshmerga as part of a multinational effort.

Since then, other countries, including Italy and Germany, have also supplied weapons and ammunition, while military advisers from the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and elsewhere have been involved in training Peshmerga forces.

But a new report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) warns that this military aid has been given without any underlying strategy. Such "stopgap" aid risks prolonging the battle with IS as well as inflaming other local conflicts, the report said.

"The net effect of coalition support has been to allow Islamic State (IS) to endure," Joost Hiltermann, ICG's Middle East and North Africa program director, said, adding that coalition support for the Peshmerga has "entrenched intra-Kurdish rivalries, providing space for Iranian influence to grow."

Problems With Weapons Supplies

Though weapons deliveries to the Peshmerga are supposed to go via the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with prior approval from Baghdad, in reality military aid has been "unilateral, mostly uncoordinated," and has come "without strings regarding their distribution and use on the front lines," the ICG said.

The Peshmerga is ostensibly a unified force controlled by the KRG. In reality, Peshmerga fighters are split between the KRG's two dominant rival parties: the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), led by KRG President Masud Barzani; and Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The ICG said the coalition's military aid has exacerbated the preexisting split between those two parties, mostly because Western weapons deliveries have disproportionally wound up in the hands of Barzani's KDP.

As a result, the PUK has had to rely increasingly on help from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey and from Iran, which has supplied mainly rocket launchers and artillery, the ICG report said.

But Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an expert on Iraq's Kurds and an analyst for the Jamestown Foundation, disagrees that Western military aid has favored the KDP.

While there had been some initial complaints by the PUK that weapons were going directly to the KDP, that is no longer the case, van Wilgenburg told RFE/RL.

"The weapons are divided over the eight sectors of the Peshmergas on the front lines (four of them are KDP, four of them are PUK). Thus, weapons go to the front lines which are most in need of the weapons, not divided on party loyalty," van Wilgenburg said.

Western governments have stopped short of supplying Peshmerga forces with any heavy weaponry. (file photo)

Western governments have stopped short of supplying Peshmerga forces with any heavy weaponry. (file photo)

Van Wilgenburg also said he disagrees with the ICG's conclusion that coalition weapons deliveries to the KRG have pushed the PUK closer to Iran and the PKK.

Relations between the PUK and the PKK predate the conflict with IS, he notes.

"Initially, when Kurdistan was under attack by IS in August 2014, Iran supported the KRG with weapons, ammunition and intelligence. So in fact, the coalition airstrikes and support made the Kurds (both the KDP and PUK) less reliant on Iran," van Wilgenburg adds.

Arms And The Peshmerga

The United States and its allies consider arming the Peshmerga a "long-term risk, but necessary," as German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her country's parliament last year. While Washington and its allies want to preserve a united Iraq, arming the Peshmerga could help facilitate the country's fragmentation as the Kurds push for independence.

For that reason, the West has stopped short of providing the Peshmerga with heavy weaponry, even though the Kurds say this is what they need to fight IS.

"Nobody is willing to give them advanced weapons, because then it would not only be IS that is the enemy, but we would also have Kurd fighting Baghdad," ICG's Hiltermann tells RFE/RL, noting that the Kurds took control of the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk last year after Iraqi forces fled IS.

The Peshmerga possesses mostly light arms, mainly Soviet-era weaponry captured from Saddam Hussein's forces in 1991 and 2003, which the Kurds say is not enough to combat the heavy weaponry of IS militants.

KRG President Barzani has insisted that Kurds should get "a share of the military equipment received by Baghdad," including heavy weaponry.

"We won't accept a repeat of what happened with [former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-]Maliki, who confiscated our share of weapons and equipment. We won't be silent about this from now on. We must get our share. If Iraq receives 300 tanks, we must take our share of them," Barzani said, insisting that if the Kurds are "expected to play a decisive role in the battle against IS" they need to have the "appropriate weapons."

Kurdish Land Grabs?

As well as empowering Barzani's KDP through disproportionate military aid, the U.S.-led coalition has also remained silent about Kurdish land grabs in disputed territories that the Kurds say are part of their autonomous region in northern Iraq, the ICG report said.

The Peshmerga has taken advantage of U.S.-led air strikes in these disputed areas, which have a mixed ethnic population, according to the report.

This has allowed IS to endure, and could strengthen the extremist Sunni group in the future if it is seen as "the only player on the ground capable of pushing back against Kurdish land grabs," the report said.

"The Kurds are maneuvering to take these territories and have had a golden opportunity, but they are giving traction to IS," Hiltermann said.

Western criticism of the Peshmerga's actions "has been muted, because the Kurds are reliable allies, and because people often don't realize that these are disputed territories," the ICG's Hiltermann told RFE/RL.

Some rights groups have pointed to allegations that the Kurds have cordoned off areas in the disputed territories. In February, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Peshmerga forces had barred Arabs who had been displaced by fighting in northern Iraq from returning to their homes.

HRW said that KRG forces have destroyed dozens of Arab homes in the areas, which it appears to be seeking to incorporate into its autonomous territory, and has also restricted Arab movement by cordoning off areas. But the Peshmerga Ministry said that the restrictions were needed because both IS members and supporters still live in a lot of the villages and fight Peshmerga forces.

Kurdistan expert van Wilgenburg said he disagrees with the ICG's assessment that Western military aid has increased tensions between Kurds and non-Kurds in disputed territories.

Tensions between Arabs and minorities like the Kurds and Yazidis arose in August, when IS captured several mixed Arab-Kurdish areas, he said.

As a result, Kurdish forces retook those areas with coalition support.

"Due to the fighting, the Arab population was displaced, and the Kurds do not want to have the Arabs return to these areas after the massacres against Yazidis and the perception that they [the Arabs] have worked with IS. Before IS, the relations between local Arabs and Kurds were much better," van Wilgenburg tells RFE/RL.

The ICG report recommends that Kurds cooperate with Iraqi government forces, rather than Iran-backed Shi'ite militias in anti-IS operations, noting that "the region's security depends more than every on preserving and cooperating with a functioning Iraqi state."

But van Wilgenburg said that it is "very difficult to cooperate with non-Kurdish actors" in the disputed territories, because the Iraqi Army has almost no presence there, although there has been some cooperation between the Peshmerga and Iraq's Golden Division, a tiny cadre of special forces.

"At this point [in the disputed territories] there is only IS and the Peshmerga forces, or Shi'ite militias," van Wilgenburg said.

-- Joanna Paraszczuk

About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world. The blog's primary author, James Miller, closely covered the first three years of the Arab Spring, with a focus on Syria, and is now the managing editor of The Interpreter, where he covers Russia's foreign and domestic policy and the Kremlin's wars in Syria and Ukraine. Follow him on Twitter: @Millermena


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