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The US Arms Kurdish Troops as a Political Crisis Brews in Baghdad

The US moved to arm the peshmerga fighting the Islamic State, while in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appeared to be out of a job.

by Alice Speri
Aug 11 2014, 6:09pm

Photo via AP/Hadi Mizban

US officials are really worried about the fast advancement of Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, so much so that they have begun arming the Kurdish peshmerga troops that are attempting to fend off the militants’ offensive — a significant shift in US involvement in the country.

The US has traditionally only armed Iraq’s central government, including by providing much of the equipment that Islamic State (then known as ISIS) fighters stole from Iraqi soldiers in the early days of their offensive in June.

But as the Kurdish troops are pretty much the only ones standing up to the Islamic State — despite losing several towns to them in recent days — the Obama administration has started bypassing Baghdad, using the CIA to provide the peshmerga with light arms and ammunition.

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The video below, shared by a Kurdish news outlet, shows troops as they battle Islamic State fighters near Makhmur, a town south of Erbil they eventually recaptured from the Sunni militants.

Help from the Americans — including a series of air strikes launched last week — has already started to have an impact on the ground. On Sunday, Kurdish troops were able to regain control of two towns previously won by militants.

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US officials said they are also continuing to collaborate with the central Iraqi government to coordinate weapon shipments to the autonomous Kurdish region. For now, they said, arming the Kurds with heavier weapons — including armored vehicles, helicopters, and missiles — was off the table.

Both the US and Iraqi government have also been involved in humanitarian air drops to aid thousands of minorites fleeing the Islamic State’s advance. The videos below, released by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and the US military respectively, show some of the air drop operations.

“The Kurds need additional arms and we're providing those — there's nothing new here,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, quoted by the Associated Press. Iraqi authorities were also coming to the aid of the peshmerga, she said, adding that Baghdad "has made deliveries from its own stocks and we are working to do the same.”

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The US has collaborated with the Kurds before but arming them directly marks a shift in policy and, in Iraq’s fragmented political landscape, this is a move with potentially significant consequences.

“If you arm the Kurds now, and I think you have to, I don’t think there’s any other way around it, you’re putting a finger on the scales of Iraq’s internal political disputes,” Michael Hanna, an international security analyst, told the Guardian. “They’re going to be retaking territory that’s part of the disputed territory. You’re basically shoring up one side of that political divide.”

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Meanwhile, in Baghdad, a different kind of crisis is brewing.

Fouad Massoum, Iraq's president, today replaced embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, appointing political rival Haider al-Abadi in his place. But just hours ahead of the announcement, al-Maliki deployed a number of loyal forces and special militias on the streets of the capital — suggesting he would not go without a fight.

In the video below, President Massoum, a Kurd, tasked al-Abadi, a member of al-Maliki’s party and a fellow Shia, with forming a new government.

But a relative of al-Maliki, a former US and Iran ally, told Reuters he would seek to fight his ousting in court.

"We will not stay silent," al-Maliki’s son-in-law, Hussein, said of the president’s nomination of a new prime minister. "The nomination is illegal and a breach of the constitution.”

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter:@alicesperi

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