(CNSNews.com) – The House Foreign Affairs Committee has passed legislation authorizing the direct provision of arms to Kurdish fighters battling ISIS in northern Iraq, a move called for by several 2016 presidential candidates but opposed both by the Obama administration and the government in Baghdad.
Introducing the legislation, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) characterized the Kurdish peshmerga fighters as “the sole US allied force operating on the ground against ISIS in Syria and Iraq,"
“For the last year and a half, we’ve had one effective fighter in this fight: It is the 160,000-strong peshmerga force,” he said, noting that some 30 percent of the fighters were women.
“They have proven themselves as the most dedicated and effective force against ISIS in Iraq – not without considerable casualties, by the way, 8,500 killed and wounded on those frontlines,” he added.
Royce said that according to the Department of Defense, many of the peshmerga casualties were the result of the fact the Kurdish fighters are poorly armed and equipped, compared to Iraqi national forces, Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia, and “most crucially here, ISIS itself.”
He said it was in the interests of the U.S. to ensure that ISIS, which controls significant territory across Iraq and Syria, does “not have the safe haven that they used to plan the [Nov. 13] attacks in Paris, and that frankly inspired the attack in the United States.”
“I believe we have to work with our partners on the ground to eliminate these sanctuaries and deny ISIS both the space and resources to drive additional attacks.”
The bill marked up Wednesday provides for the U.S. to supply “directly” to the Kurds advanced conventional weapons that could include “anti-tank and anti-armor weapons, armored vehicles, long-range artillery, crew-served weapons and ammunition, secure command and communications equipment, body armor, helmets, logistics equipment, excess defense articles and other military assistance that the President determines to be appropriate.”
President Obama last October vetoed defense authorization legislation that contained provisions on arming the Kurds, after the White House warned that doing so would “fundamentally undermine” the Iraqi government. A revised version signed into law last month contained watered down, “sense of Congress” language on arming the Kurds “in coordination with coalition partners.”
As the House Foreign Affairs Committee prepared to discuss the latest legislation, Iraq’s embassy in Washington raised objections, calling it “unwise and unnecessary.”
Arguing that the bill faces a slim chance of getting through Congress and being signed into law, the embassy said in a statement that “suggests that it is being considered primarily for reasons of political symbolism.”
“This is regrettable, because the focus of all Iraqis and our allies at this time needs to be on defeating Da’esh [ISIS]. Promoting artificial divisions among Iraqis can only distract from the struggle against our common enemy.”
‘Constrained and delayed’
The Kurds are one of the world’s largest ethnic groups deprived of an independent state, scattered across large parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. In Iraq alone they enjoy an autonomous quasi-state, although the Syrian civil war has enabled Kurds there to carve out a de-facto autonomous region in the north of that country, to Turkey’s dismay.
The Iraqis, Turks and Iranians fret that strengthening the Kurds – through moves like directly arming them – could fuel sovereignty aspirations across a greater Kurdistan.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government insists that it be the conduit for any weaponry going to the Kurdish peshmerga to help in their fight against ISIS.
But the language in Royce’s bill raises questions about Baghdad’s willingness to channel U.S.-provided arms to the Kurds.
“The United States and its allies have provided the resupply of various small arms and training to Peshmerga forces since June 2014,” it says. “Such resupply efforts, to comply with United States law, must be approved and coordinated through the Government of Iraq.
“In the initial phase of the resupply effort, the Government of Iraq constrained and delayed the emergency supply of weapons to the Kurdistan Regional Government,” the bill says.
Several 2015 presidential candidates have called during the campaign for the U.S. to provide direct armed support to the Kurds.
“The Kurds have asked us to arm them for three years. We are not. I would,” Carly Fiorina said in a Fox Business Network debate on Nov. 10, while rival Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said during a CNN debate last September, “The Kurds deserve to be armed and I’ll arm them.”
In a Council on Foreign Relations speech last month, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton said the U.S. should arm the Kurds in northern Iraq directly if the Iraqi government does not cooperate – a position putting her at odds with the administration she served in as first-term secretary of state.
Just before leaving his post as special envoy for the anti-ISIS coalition, retired Marine Corps Gen. John Allen said in a CNN interview the U.S. does not want to arm the Kurds directly because of the imperative of restoring Iraq’s territorial integrity and the sovereignty of its government.
Moving the assistance through Baghdad, Allen said, “has both provided for the support to the Kurds but also has reinforced the nature of the sovereignty of the Iraqi government.”