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EU Seeks to Squeeze Iraq’s Islamists as Ukraine Festers

Peshmerga Fighter in Iraq
A flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region flies next to an Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighter as he takes position to monitor the area from their front line in Bashiqa, a town 13 kilometres north-east of Mosul, on August 16, 2014. Photographer: Ahmad al-Rubaye/AFP via Getty Images

European Union governments cleared the way for arming Kurdish forces to help them take on Islamic State militants in Iraq and said they’ll look for ways to block oil sales by the insurgents.

With France already sending weapons to Kurdish fighters, or peshmergas, in northern Iraq, the 28 EU foreign ministers bridged reservations in countries including Germany by agreeing to let governments deliver hardware according to their “capabilities and national laws.”

“The aim must be to halt the murderous actions and the military advance of ISIS,” as Islamic State is also known, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told reporters after the emergency meeting in Brussels yesterday. Ministers backed the idea “that individual countries will respond positively to requests for support by security forces in the Kurdistan region,” he said.

EU governments’ resolve to step up their joint response may open the door to a broader counteroffensive against Islamic State. The regional threat posed by the extremists has led thousands of minority Yezidis and Christians to flee their advance, prompting U.S. airstrikes and other military action to aid the refugees. The world has been shocked by the brutality and speed of the group’s advance, Steinmeier said.

“It’s time to do more,” Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius told reporters before the talks. “We have to support those who are threatened, especially the Kurds in the north. Some military assistance also should be discussed.”

Oil Revenue

Seeking to dry up funding for the insurgents and citing “our common fight against terrorism,” the ministers also agreed to “assess how to prevent ISIL benefiting from oil sales,” according to a joint EU statement after the meeting. Islamic State is also known as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.

EU members in eastern Europe are best-placed to supply weapons since Kurdish forces are used to using Soviet-era hardware, “in particular in terms of ammunition to complement munition stocks there,” Steinmeier said. Even so, there’s “no clear analysis” among EU governments of what kind of equipment is needed, he said.

Iraq’s political and humanitarian crisis is surging onto the agenda as Europe struggles to maintain pressure on President Vladimir Putin to end the armed conflict in Ukraine that’s caused the worst standoff with Russia since the Cold War.

Ministers also discussed the outlook for humanitarian aid in eastern Ukraine, where government forces have shelled the eastern city of Donetsk to flush out Russian-backed separatists and a Russian aid convoy has stoked mutual mistrust. The fragile cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, escalating violence in Libya and the ebola outbreak were also on the agenda.

‘Crisis Summer’

“This is a crisis meeting in a crisis summer,” said Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt. “We have a volatile international environment, to put it mildly, even a dangerous international environment, which puts great demands on the European Union.”

Germany’s air force sent four aid flights on their way to Erbil in northern Iraq yesterday with food, medicine and blankets, Luftwaffe spokesman Col. Michael Koetting said by phone. Italy will send 50 metric tons of food and water, 200 tents and 400 sleeping bags starting today, according to a government statement. The United Nations will distribute the aid.

“Let’s be honest: Humanitarian aid alone isn’t enough,” said Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz. “So I fear there won’t be any way around arms deliveries.”

Critical Supplies

EU unity on arms aid for Iraq may come more easily after authorities in Baghdad endorsed direct deliveries to Kurds. In addition to France, the U.K. has said it’s helping supply Kurdish forces with military aid, while Germany and Italy have said they will consider joining them.

Canada sent two aircraft “to assist in the delivery of critical military supplies from contributing allies to Kurdish forces” fighting Islamic State, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement.

The situation in Iraq risks echoing that in Syria, where the international community’s reaction was “late and timid,” Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said. “To avoid this, the delivery of weapons to the Iraqi government has already been cleared and at the moment we are aiming to deliver weapons to the authorities of Kurdistan.”

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