(CNSNews.com) – The U.S. House Armed Services Committee passed a defense bill Thursday including a provision that allocates to minority Kurdish and Sunni fighters one-quarter of a $715 million tranche for training and equipping Iraqi forces to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL).
Proposals to arm Kurdish “peshmerga” fighters and irregular Sunni militias directly for their fight against ISIS jihadists run counter to the Obama administration’s policy of funneling all such assistance through the Shi’a-majority government in Baghdad.
The Iraq section of the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) also drew a sharp response this week from Iraqi’s extremist Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Should the provision make it into law, he warned, he would unleash his supposedly “frozen” Mahdi Army militia, to attack U.S. interests in Iraq and abroad.
The Iraqi government also opposes the move, according to a statement by Defense Minister Khalid Al-Obeidi to a Kurdish media network, Rudaw.
“We will reject the arming of the peshmerga directly by the U.S.,” it quoted him as saying. “Arming the peshmerga, Sunnis and Shi’ites must be conducted by the central government, not by the U.S.”
After 18 hours of debate and consideration of multiple amendments, the Armed Services Committee, chaired by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), voted 60-2 to send the bill to the full House.
The relevant portion of the NDAA, section 1223, authorizes $715 million for the Iraq train-and-equip mission, but requires that “not less than 25 percent of such funds be expended for direct assistance to the Kurdish peshmerga, the Sunni tribal security forces with a national security mission, and the [U.S.-proposed but not yet established] Iraqi Sunni National Guard.”
The section focuses on Baghdad’s policies in dealing with the sectarianism that is widely viewed as having helped to fuel the ISIS insurgency by prompting disgruntled Sunnis to back the jihadists.
It requires the secretaries of defense and state to report every quarter to Congress on the extent to which the Iraqi government is combating sectarianism, through such steps as addressing ethnic grievances, including minorities in the security forces, and ending support for Shi’a militias.
If the government is assessed to have failed in those areas, then FY2016 assistance must be withheld from Baghdad, and in such an event, no less than 60 percent of the unobligated funds for Iraq for the fiscal year would have to be directed to the Kurdish and Sunni forces.
Kurdish fighters have been the most effective forces in the pushback against the ISIS jihadists who swept across Iraq last summer, captured Mosul, and declared a caliphate encompassing parts of both Iraq and Syria.
But some officials in the autonomous Kurdish government have said Baghdad is not adequately providing it with the weapons it needs for the mission.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani is scheduled to hold talks with President Obama and other U.S. officials in Washington in the coming days, his first visit to the U.S. in three years.
Asked about the NDAA provisions, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf on Thursday reiterated the administration’s stance, in support of a unified Iraq.
“Our policy remains that all arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central government of Iraq,” she told a daily briefing. “We believe this policy is the most effective way to support the coalition’s efforts to combat ISIL and promote our policy of a unified, federal, pluralistic, and democratic state.”
Several years ago, a proposal to divide Iraq into a loose federation of Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish regions gained traction on Capitol Hill, with then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-Dela.) a leading proponent.
In 2007 Biden authored a non-binding resolution on the subject which drew bipartisan support and passed by a 75-23 margin. At the time he called it “a major repudiation of President Bush’s failed policy in Iraq.”
Of the other four senators running for the White House at the time Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) supported Biden’s measure, while Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) did not vote.