Kurdish official hits administration over delayed weapons

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Kurdish peshmerga forces fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are only receiving a fraction of promised U.S. military support, a top Kurdish official warned on Monday.

"President Obama's Iraq train-and-equip fund, which comes to $1.6 billion, gave us great hope that American weapons would be delivered in early 2015," said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government's representative to the U.S., said at a Bipartisan Policy Center event.

"But since the passage of the law approving the train-and-equip fund, the vast majority of those weapons have not been delivered."

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Rahman said the peshmerga has contributed the "lion's share of the fight against ISIS" in Iraq and blamed the lack of support on the Obama administration's decision to send weapons to Baghdad instead of directly to the Kurds.

Rahman said "political friction" was leading to a slow and unfair distribution of weapons to Kurdish units.

For example, only 25 of the 250 mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs) delivered to Baghdad in January have gone to the peshmerga, she said. Deliveries of M-4 rifles, M3 anti-tank weapons, body armor and trucks have also fallen short.

"Some of our weapons date back to the Second World War," she said. 

Rahman said she appreciated efforts by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and ranking member Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) to address the problem. The two reintroduced legislation to send arms directly to the Kurds two weeks ago. The bill is co-sponsored by 31 other lawmakers, including eight Democrats. 

So far, the Obama administration prefers to funnel weapons through Baghdad to avoid undermining the Shia-dominated central government.

"Erbil is part of Iraq. It does not undermine Iraq to deliver weapons to where they are needed most urgently," Rahman responded. 

The Pentagon defended the support provided to Iraq.

The U.S. has provided Iraq with 232 Hellfire missiles in 2015 and 1,572 in 2014, 250 MRAPs, thousands of Kevlar helmets and body armor, 10,000 M-16 rifles, 10,000 sights, and 100,000 magazines. So far, the U.S.-led coalition has provided more than 4 million pounds of equipment to the peshmerga, a Pentagon spokeswoman said on Monday.

"We have been committed to supporting the Kurds," the spokeswoman said.

"Our policy remains that all arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central government of Iraq. This is a legal requirement under current U.S. law." 

Rahman said the U.S. led the way in coordinating aid to the peshmerga "in the early days" of the fight against ISIS. But since August, there have been "numerous delays" in the U.S.-led coalition's efforts to train and equip Kurdish forces.

She said they have received small and medium arms, ammunition, and some anti-tank weapons, but are still facing shortfalls in more advanced weaponry. 

"We are now in our ninth month of fighting ISIS. We continue to have shortfalls of counter-[improvised explosive device] equipment, armored vehicles, anti-armor weapons, and don't forget ISIS captured the latest American weaponry that had been delivered to the Iraqi Army," Rahman said. 

Rahman also said that only three peshmerga brigades, of 12 Iraqi brigades total, are slated to receive coalition training.

"We believe that three brigades is simply not enough. We have over 150,000 peshmerga. We need training for all of them," she said. "We have not only demonstrated our political will to fight, but we will continue to do so, but we need the United States and the coalition partners to step up the effort, to deliver weapons, and the kinds of weapons we need." 

"Time is not a luxury that we can afford. Having deliveries delayed in Baghdad only defeats the objective of fighting ISIS quickly," she added.

Rahman said more than 1,000 Kurds have been killed and more than 5,000 wounded.

Retired Air Force Gen. Charles Wald, a former European Command deputy commander who spoke at the event, urged more help, calling it "immoral" to only give the Kurds 25 armored vehicles for their fight.

"There are problems running everything through Baghdad," added Kenneth Pollack, former National Security Council director for Persian Gulf affairs. 

"They are a mess. They are having trouble running its own war," he continued. "We can't be allowing Baghdad's problems to hamstrung what we're doing with the [Kurdish Regional Government]," he said.

Rahman said a recent meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani "went very well," but that al-Abadi's steps were "not good enough." 

She said a deal in December to share Kurdish oil exports with the central government in exchange for Kurdistan's fair share of government revenue helped relations but that Baghdad still owed the Kurdish government billions of dollars.

John Hannah, former assistant for national security to Vice President Cheney, said there were larger stakes in helping the pro-Western Kurds than just the war against Iraq.

"We ought to be pulling out a lot of the stops," he said. 

"I believe the United States should look at Kurdistan as a partner, not just today ... but in the future," Rahman added. "We are part of the solution in the Middle East."