The House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday passed a bipartisan bill by unanimous voice vote that would authorize the U.S. to directly arm and train the Kurdish peshmerga in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
"Kurdish forces in northern Iraq have been some of our closest partners in the fight against the ISIS," said Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) at a hearing to mark up the bill.
"This legislation removes those roadblocks," Royce said. Authorized weapons would include anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles and long-range artillery.
The measure, while authorizing and not requiring the president to provide arms to the Kurds, is controversial since it authorizes the U.S. to sidestep the government in Baghdad, which opposes direct arming of the Kurds since it could undermine its control and authority.
Powerful Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq also oppose the U.S. directly arming the Kurds or the Sunnis, who are from a different Islamic sect, since it could also undermine their influence in Iraq. They have threatened to attack U.S. forces in Iraq in response to U.S. legislation that would grant those groups more autonomy.
The bill would authorize President Obama to provide equipment and training directly to Iraqi Kurds for three years and urges the president to continue consulting with the Iraqi government, and requires that the weapons be used to meet the shared goal with the U.S. of defeating ISIS.
There are 160,000 peshmerga forces in Iraq, with about 30 percent of them women, Royce said. About 8,500 have been killed and wounded on the front lines.
"A lot of those losses are caused by the fact they're outmatched by firepower," he said. "Rather than fleeing from ISIS, they stand to fight with antiquated weapons."
Royce said the Peshmerga are using outdated light weapons from Saddam Hussein's rule and even from World War II.
A number of Democrats on the committee spoke in favor of the measure.
"We need to make sure the Kurds have everything they need to defend themselves," said the committee's top Democrat, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.).
"They can't take on ISIS all by themselves," he said.