U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter made an unannounced stop in the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil, Iraq, Friday on the final leg of his week-long Middle East tour.
The Kurds have emerged as a critical ally in the effort to defeat Islamic State fighters, who declared a self-styled caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria.
Carter met with Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani at what the Kurds call their “White House” in Erbil. The secretary recognized the battlefield successes of Kurdish Peshmerga forces while noting that the U.S. would continue to support them “working by, with and through the government of Iraq,” according to a Pentagon statement.
Republicans in Congress have called on the Obama administration to arm the Kurds directly, instead of going through the central Iraqi government. Administration officials have said weapons deliveries continue to be funneled through Baghdad, but the process has been accelerated.
Iraq’s minority Kurds, who historically have resisted control by Arab-dominated governments in Baghdad, are independently developing oil reserves they say may total 45 billion barrels -- equivalent to almost a third of Iraq’s deposits, according to BP Plc data.
The Kurds have long operated a separate military force, which last year occupied the long-disputed, oil-rich territory around Kirkuk as the Iraqi army fled from Islamist militants.
The Kurds are now bypassing the Baghdad government and independently selling crude oil exported from their region as they take greater steps toward autonomy.