Kurdish Peshmerga Ask U.S. for Support as Iran-Backed Militias Threaten Iraq’s Stability

Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been fighting Islamic State in northern Iraq
JM Lopez/AFP

Representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq (KRG) requested the United States increase its aid to the group this week as the Peshmerga undergo a major restructuring intended to turn them into a formidable state army.

The Peshmerga have played a crucial role in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq, particularly in the fight for Mosul and northern territories such as Sinjar. The KRG’s government is generally pro-American while maintaining friendly relations with neighbors like Turkey, which has launched a military campaign meant to contain Syrian Kurdish fighters. Tensions have grown in recent months with the Iraqi government as KRG president Masoud Barzani announced a referendum on statehood scheduled for September 25, 2017.

“In a meeting with the U.S. military officials, we officially asked them to support the Coalition and the Ministry of Peshmerga’s joint plan to form a more institutionalized Peshmerga Ministry, and upgrade as well as unify the Peshmerga forces,” Peshmerga spokesman Brigadier General Halgurd Hikmat told the Kurdish outlet Kurdistan24 this week. Hikmat is in Washington as part of an Iraqi/Kurdish delegation arriving to discuss the post-Islamic State (IS/ISIS/ISIL) future of northern Iraq, less than a month after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the Iraqi military had successfully defeated ISIS in Mosul, its capital in Iraq and the nation’s second-largest city.

Hikmat told BasNews, another Kurdish outlet, that he specifically requested the United States help with a larger project for “reorganizing and institutionalizing the Peshmerga forces.” The modernization and institutionalizing of the Peshmerga, who do not have the status of a state military despite their prowess on the battlefield, would be pivotal to the success of a Kurdish state in Iraq.

Another unnamed Peshmerga official told Kurdistan24 that the “anti-IS Global Coalition has expressed willingness to support our efforts,” presumably including its largest member, the United States. American officials have supported the Peshmerga’s efforts continuously in the fight against the Islamic State and praised the Peshmerga alongside the Iraqi military and other forces following the liberation of Mosul.

Hikmat’s call for help should also not come as a surprise, given that the KRG’s outreach to the Trump administration began shortly after election day, with Kurdistan Region Security Council chief Masrour Barzani sending Trump a message in November, saying, “We hope the president-elect will increase support to the Peshmerga and the Kurdish people as the most reliable, effective and trusted ally in the war on terrorism.”

The Peshmerga may now face less of a threat from the Islamic State, but the stability of Kurdistan following their demise remains at risk due to the presence of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a coalition of Shiite, mostly Iran-backed paramilitaries that the Iraqi government legalized shortly before the battle for Mosul in order to use them to fight the Islamic State. As Peshmerga officials predicted before the battle of Mosul, when they requested a greater role in fighting the Islamic State, the Iraqi military was “too weak” to take on ISIS by itself. Instead of allying with the Peshmerga, however, the Iraqi government legalized the PMF.

Even before the liberation of Mosul, reports existed of PMF attacks on the Peshmerga in northern Sinjar, home to a sizeable Yazidi minority population and a site the PMF have eyed with interest for a new base. Now that the Islamic State no longer controls Mosul, the PMF have more time to attack the Peshmerga and appears to be “dissatisfied” with the significant Peshmerga presence in northern Iraq. In one of the most recent incidents, on July 10, the Kurdish outlet Rudaw reported that the PMF had “arrested” three Peshmerga fighters.

Tensions between the PMF and the Peshmerga benefit the Iraqi government, which opposes the Kurdish independence referendum.

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