Iran supplied Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with weapons to help battle extremist militants led by the Islamic State, president Massoud Barzani said today at a joint press conference with Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran was the first state to help us... and it provided us with weapons and equipment," Barzani disclosed, according to AFP.
The shipments to Kurdish peshmerga fighters began after the Islamic State — which seized a large swathe of northern Iraq in June when the militant group was still known as ISIS — advanced to within 20 miles of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region's capital of Erbil in early August.
Zarif added that Iran is not supporting its Kurdish neighbor with forces on the ground. "We do not have any soldiers in Iraq, we don't intend to send soldiers to Iraq," he said.
However, a number of sources in Iraq told VICE News that there was an Iranian military presence in a number of different parts of the country, from bases near the Islamic State-held city of Tikrit, to Kurdish Erbil and Jalawla and Samarra, north of Baghdad. Most said the Iranians were serving in advisory roles.
Others have reported an active fighting role, and Iran's official state media outlet IRNA has previously reported an Iranian pilot was killed while "defending" Shiite holy sites in Samarra.
Iran has not been the only country to supply Iraq's Kurds with weapons. In yet another example of the Islamic State's ability to create some unexpected bedfellows, the US also began shipping weapons to the region, and launched a series of airstrikes on militant targets from August 8. In an unprecedented step, the central Iraqi government in Baghdad — which has previously blocked supplies of arms to the Kurds for fear they well be used in a fight for independence from the rest of Iraq — delivered ammunition from its own stocks to Erbil.
It is not clear exactly what sort of weaponry Iran provided. Peshmerga forces are mainly equipped with Soviet-era Russian-made weapons looted from the Iraqi army during the 2003 US-led invasion. But when Islamic State fighters overran the country's second-largest city, Mosul, they were able to seize arms recently supplied to the Iraqi Army by the US. These include tanks, armored vehicles, artillery, and huge supplies of ammunition.
This has left Kurdish forces facing a well-equipped opponent, which senior officers have complained they needed heavier weaponry to deal with. Peshmerga ministry spokesman General Halgurd Hikmat previously told VICE News that troops had received only "basic weapons" like small arms and ammunition, and in amounts sufficient only to "refresh" the peshmerga stockpiles from the US. "These supplies are not effective to fight ISIS," Hikmat said. "We need new weapons and we need strategic weapons and vehicles."
France, Germany, Italy, and the UK have also pledged military assistance to Kurdish troops, which have since managed to claw back some of the territory the lost.
Iran may be willing to supply heavier weapons. It previously delivered Su-25 attack jets to the Iraqi military in July, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Russia had previously delivered a number of the aircraft, but IISS analysts concluded that these examples were Iranian based on their serial numbers and also their camouflage scheme — identical to the one currently, and uniquely, applied to Iranian Su-25s. Key operator markings, such as Iranian roundels, had also been crudely painted over, IISS said.
Elsewhere in Iraq, eight people were killed and around 20 injured in a car bomb attack targeting a majority Shiite district in the capital of Baghdad today. At least 20 died in three separate blasts on Monday, while a bloody weekend saw at least 42 dead in bombings in Baghdad and northern Kirkuk on Saturday. The previous day, 68 were killed and scores wounded in an attack by a suicide bomber and gunmen on a mosque in Diyala province.
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