Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday said he opposes an effort in Congress to directly arm the Kurdish peshmerga and Sunni tribal fighters in their fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syri (ISIS).
"I understand that some on Capitol Hill would like to bypass the Iraqi government and directly arm the Kurds and some Iraqi tribes," Carter said at a press briefing.
"But we oppose such a move, because we believe a unified Iraq is critical to the long-term defeat of ISIL and because it could put some of our personnel at risk," he added, using another acronym for ISIS.
It would also require an administration assessment as to whether Iraq is meeting conditions of political inclusion of those groups and other ethnic and sectarian minorities.
If Iraq is not achieving those conditions, the legislation would require the Defense secretary to withhold military assistance to Iraq and provide at least 60 percent of the unobligated funds to the Sunnis and peshmerga. It would also consider the Kurds and Sunnis as a "state" so as to be supplied weapons directly.
Sunni disenfranchisement had played a large role in ISIS's ability to gain a foothold in Iraq, and lawmakers want to ensure it doesn't happen again.
Carter's remarks came after a meeting with Masoud Barzani, Kurdistan regional president, on Thursday. Kurdish officials complain Baghdad is not distributing weapons to them fairly or fast enough.
"We reaffirmed our commitment to working together ‘by, with, and through the government of Iraq’ to deliver a lasting defeat to ISIL,” Carter said after his meeting with Barzani.
A group of lawmakers who visited Baghdad last weekend expressed reluctance to support the arms provision, which is included in the 2016 defense policy bill that is hitting the House floor next week.
However, the idea is gaining ground in the Senate. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would arm the Kurds directly. Some of the bill’s provisions could make it into the Senate Armed Services Committee’s 2016 defense policy bill, which is scheduled to be marked up next week.
A powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq, Muqtada al-Sadr, has threatened to allow Shiite fighters to attack U.S. forces if the bill passes.
“If the time comes and the proposed bill is passed, we will have no choice but to unfreeze the military wing that deals with the American entity so that it may start targeting American interests in Iraq and outside of Iraq when possible,” Sadr said, according to The Long War Journal.
-- Updated at 5/13/15 at 9:27 a.m.