Keep passing the ammo, America.

Photographer: Emrah Yorulmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Victorious Kurds Ask U.S. for Promised Guns

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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With the victory this week over Islamic State forces at Kobani, Syria, one might think that the U.S. and Iraqi governments would be looking to increase shipments of armaments to the Iraqi Kurdish forces fighting on the ground.

But according to the Kurd overseeing much of the ground campaign in Northern Iraq, his Peshmerga units are facing a shortage of ammunition and guns just at the moment they have turned the tide against the jihadists.

In an exclusive interview from a command center on the Iraq-Syria border, Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, told me his forces have received only four shipments of needed munitions in recent months. “The shortage of ammunition is a big problem and this is not even close to what we were asking for,” he said.

His comments have all the more significance because a recent deal -- brokered in part by the U.S. -- commits the Baghdad government to provide $1 billion to Kurdish forces in exchange for the Kurds sharing revenue of their oil exports. Barzani says that so far, his forces have not received that money, though he spoke to me before the final deal was passed this week in Iraq’s parliament as part of its annual budget.

The news is also important in light of recent news reports suggesting the Obama administration has not committed many resources in other elements of its war against Islamic State jihadists, such as bankrolling and equipping moderate Syrian rebels. The White House now says it will take at least three years to complete the Islamic State mission, leaving the war to be finished by the next president’s administration.

Barzani is the son of the Kurdistan region’s president, Massoud Barzani, and the grandson of the legendary Kurdish nationalist Mustafa Barzani. He is now overseeing much of the day-to-day fighting on one of the war's hottest fronts. When Syrian Kurdish fighters known as the PYD were under siege in Kobani, Masrour Barzani sent a Peshmerga artillery team into the city that also helped coordinate the U.S. airstrikes as part of the battle.

But such cooperation with the U.S. Air Force in the border area and elsewhere has not resulted in the arms shipments the Kurds say they desperately need to fight the Islamic State army, which has appropriated heavy weaponry the U.S. provided long ago to the Iraqi army.

“The United States spent 10 years training an Iraqi army, it spent billions of dollars training an Iraqi army and equipping it with Humvees, MRAPs [mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles], artillery and howitzers, all of this given to the Iraqi army, and it was dismantled in 10 hours,” Barzani said, referring to the collapse of the Iraqi forces in June at Mosul and around Kirkuk.

A State Department official in Washington contacted on Thursday largely disputed the characterization that the Kurds were being deprived. In talking points provided to me, the official pointed out that Baghdad had recently sent 25 MRAPs to the Kurds, and that since August there have been 59 international cargo flights worth of ammunition delivered to the Peshmerga. This included 45,000 mortar rounds, 2,800 rocket-propelled-grenade launchers, 40,000 rounds for those launchers, and 18,000 assault rifles.

Yet Barzani said that most of those shipments came in the late summer and fall from eastern European countries, and that the re-supply of the Kurdish forces since December has slowed to a trickle. He was particularly angry that his forces received only 25 MRAPs.

“Now the Americans are providing 250 MRAPs to Iraq, but only 25 of them are promised to be given to the Kurds,” he said. “90 percent of the burden for this war is on the shoulder of the Peshmerga, 90 percent of the work is done by the Peshmerga, but we are only getting 10 percent of the armaments.”

Barzani also pointed out that his forces were getting none of the 1,000 Humvees or 175 Abrams tanks promised to Iraq. “We are starting to have doubts that there might be a political decision on what sort of equipment should be given to the Kurds,” he said. “We don’t think this is just a technical issue. It’s been way too long for any technical issue.”

The State Department official said there was no intent to deny Kurdish fighters heavy weapons, and that there was a new effort to provide mortars, rounds for Soviet-made T-62 tanks the Kurds commandeered in 2003 from Saddam Hussein’s army, and other vehicles and equipment to counter roadside bombs. The Obama administration also committed for the first time to train and equip a Kurdish Peshmerga division. 

But the White House has also not changed a longstanding policy -- enshrined in U.S. law -- that prohibits the open shipment of weapons to sub-state entities such as the Kurdistan Regional Government. That means, in practice, the Baghdad government gets a final say on all weapons headed to Kurdistan.

Other Western countries have been more flexible. Germany has provided the Kurds with French-made Milan anti-tank missiles, which Barzani said were very effective against Humvees and other vehicles used by Islamic State forces.

“At the end of the day, the U.S. position is that it has to get Baghdad’s approval for any specific weapons system,” said James Jeffrey, who served as U.S. ambassador there between 2010 and 2012. “That is part of our keeping-Iraq-unified policy. As it stands now, Masrour has had to rely in large part on other countries for the equipment and ammunition he will need to take on the Islamic State." 

In some cases, that includes counting on less-than-savory actors such as Iran. Barzani acknowledged receiving ammunition from Iranian military. Jeffrey told me this included rockets and other kinds of specialized weapons. “He is right to complain, because they are doing a lot of the fighting and they don’t have a lot of the heavy weapons they are going to need,” Jeffrey said.

Barzani said that since the Peshmerga entered the war, more than 800 fighters have been killed and more than 4,000 wounded. “We are fighting on behalf of the rest of the world against this terrorist organization,” he told me. “We are putting our lives on the line. All we ask for is the sufficient equipment to protect these lives.” 

(Corrects nationality of Kurdish forces in sixth paragraph.)

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To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net