Defense secretary praises Kurds but signals no direct arms

Defense secretary praises Kurds but signals no direct arms
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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter on Thursday touted the effectiveness of Kurdish forces in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, but indicated there were no plans to begin directly arming them despite bipartisan support in Congress to do so. 

"The Kurdish Peshmerga have been exactly what we have been looking for in this whole fight in Iraq and Syria, namely a capable and motivated force that we can enable," Carter said during a visit to Erbil, Iraq. Peshmerga is the name by which Kurdsh fighters in northern Iraq are known.

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However, he added, "everything we do here, of course, in Iraq ... recognizes that this is a sovereign country and that is one government in Baghdad." 

The House Foreign Affairs Committee last week unanimously voted to authorize the president to directly arm and train the peshmerga, instead of funneling all military assistance through Baghdad. 

The administration has opted to distribute aid through Baghdad out of concern that training and arming the peshmerga directly would undermine the authority of the central government, and would lead to civil war and a breakup of the country along Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish lines. 

But lawmakers say Baghdad — which is dominated by Shiites and heavily influenced by Iran — is not distributing the U.S. military aid set aside for the peshmerga, in an attempt to keep non-Shiite factions in Iraq weak. 

"If you run weapons through Baghdad, those weapons will not be received by the Kurds, or the Yezidis, or the Sunni tribes," Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), the panel's chairman, told reporters on Thursday. 

He said he would work to bring the bill to the House floor next year, and then work on directly arming Sunni tribes. 

The House bill would authorize the president to directly provide the peshmerga with anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles and long-range artillery, among other supplies, for three years. 

Currently, Royce said, the peshmerga are fighting with antiquated light weapons from Saddam Hussein's rule and from World War II. 

Congress's push to arm the peshmerga comes as the Obama administration is looking for ways to intensify the fight against ISIS.  

The Defense secretary said the peshmerga would play a role in retaking Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, back from ISIS, but did not say how. 

Carter insisted that the U.S. has been "absolutely" arming the peshmerga, in addition to 12 other countries.  

He added that the next major U.S. shipment is two brigades' worth of equipment that will assist in the retaking of Mosul. 

"But there are lots of other things as well, and again, we're not the only ones who provide that equipment. But they deserve it, because they're effective on the ground and effective in fighting," he added.