Kurdish forces fought to retake positions overrun last week by Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to cling to power even after losing the backing of key ally Iran.
Kurdish peshmerga troops, bolstered by U.S. airstrikes, fought the Sunni militants near the town of Sinjar, according to Nineveh provincial council member Hisham al-Brefkani. The push came as France said it would supply the Kurds with weapons, and the U.S. and Britain readied plans to rescue ethnic Yazidis trapped by the insurgents in the mountains of northern Iraq.
As his support crumbled, Maliki denounced as unconstitutional President Fouad Masoum’s naming of Haidar al-Abadi, a member of Maliki’s Shiite Dawa party, to replace him as premier. The political standoff between Masoum and Maliki following inconclusive April elections has exacerbated a power vacuum and hindered efforts to counter Islamic State insurgents who have seized large parts of Iraq since June.
Following airstrikes against Islamic State units, Kurdish forces are fighting to “retake all the bases the peshmerga lost or used to control,” Brefkani said by phone from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region. The Kurds’ objectives include the strategic Mosul dam, Iraq’s largest, he said.
Britain and the U.S. were focused on rescuing members of the Yazidi community who fled the Islamic State’s offensive.
“We need a plan to get these people off that mountain and get them to a place of safety,” U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said in London after cutting short his holiday. “Detailed plans are now being put in place and are underway and Britain will play a role in delivering them.”
Britain is delivering ammunition to Kurdish forces, Cameron said, though he didn’t mention the source of the armaments.
U.S. advisers will report back with recommendations on breaking the siege of the Yazidis within days, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes said today. U.S. planes have been dropping food and water to trapped members of the community almost every day, he said. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf put the number still besieged at tens of thousands.
In Baghdad, Abadi moved ahead with efforts to form a new cabinet, calling for candidates for ministerial portfolios, he said on his Facebook page. The European Union, the Arab League, and countries including Egypt and Saudi Arabia have backed Abadi’s nomination, as has Iran, a one-time backer of Maliki and the region’s dominant Shiite power.
Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government has for years alienated minority Sunnis, some of whom have backed the Islamic State insurgency. The prime minister remained defiant today even after officials in Tehran signaled they’d lost faith in him.
“This government will continue and will not be changed until a federal court decision is made,” Maliki said in a television address today. “Things are not that simple.”
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Council, congratulated Abadi yesterday on his selection as the next prime minister, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported. Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today that with the selection of Abadi “knots will be untied” and a “government will be formed so it can get to work.”
“The only person that thinks Maliki should stay in power is Nouri al-Maliki,” Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar, said in a phone interview. “The Iranians have withdrawn their support from him. The Americans have withdrawn their support from him. I’m not sure what he needs to get in order to understand that he really should probably step aside.”
The coalescing support around Abadi helped Iraq’s ISX General Index rise for a second day. It increased 3.6 percent in Baghdad, according to data on the stock exchange website.
President Barack Obama, who authorized limited air attacks against the Islamic State after they made rapid gains last week, has tied expanded U.S. action to the formation of a more inclusive government capable of easing sectarian and ethnic divisions. While the U.S. and Iran are nemeses on many fronts, they share a common enemy in the Islamic State.
The group started in 2003 as al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi until he was killed in a U.S. air strike in Iraq in 2006. It later became known as the Islamic State in Iraq and in 2013 renamed itself Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL. In October 2013, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri disavowed ISIL for its brutality and for not following orders.
After earlier saying it would wait for the decision of its fellow EU members, France went ahead and supplied weapons directly to Kurdish forces, saying it had received “urgent requests.” The German Foreign Ministry said EU foreign ministers may meet on the crisis on Aug. 15.
The Kurds are “naturally going to want to retake the territory, reestablish their reputation as capable fighters and create some kind of deterrence against” the Islamic State, Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counterterrorism coordinator who’s now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College.
“They’re postured for demonstrating more autonomy and even independence. They have an interest in showing strength now,” Benjamin said in response to e-mailed questions.