The White House, Muqtada al-Sadr, a powerful Iraqi Shiite Cleric, and the Iraqi government have come out against a proposed U.S defense bill that authorizes sending arms and funds directly to the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Sunni tribal fighters in Iraq.
Early Thursday morning, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) passed the $612 billion National Defense Authorization Act for 2016 (NDAA) by a 60-2 bipartisan vote, clearing it for consideration by the full House next month.
Section 1223 of the House Republicans’s NDAA authorizes President Obama’s $715 million request for military assistance to the Iraqi forces combatting the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), but with a caveat.
The proposed bill requires that 25 percent of the funds be provided directly to the Kurdish Peshmerga, the nascent Iraqi National Guard, which is made up of various Sunni militias, and the Sunni tribal forces—all of which are not truly subject to the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government.
According to a summary of the bill prepared by the HASC, “the remaining 75 percent would be withheld until the Secretaries of State and Defense determine that the Government of Iraq is meeting certain conditions for political reconciliation. Should they not be able to make that assessment, 60 percent of the remaining funds would be released directly to the Kurds and Sunnis.”
The conditions that the Iraqi government has to meet are related to the “political inclusion of ethnic and sectarian minorities within the security forces of Iraq,” explains the bill’s text.
Moreover, the legislation requires that the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Sunni fighters are deemed “a country,” allowing them to receive direct U.S. assistance, bypassing Iraq.
The NDAA also demands that Iraq distance itself from Iran-backed Shiite militias that have been accused of retribution against Sunnis in Iraq.
“In the event of approving this bill by the U.S. Congress, we will find ourselves obliged to unfreeze the military wing and start targeting the American interests in Iraq – even abroad, which is doable,” said a statement on Muqtada al-Sadr’s website, reports The Associated Press (AP).
Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government has also rejected the bill.
“Any weapons supplying will be done only through the Iraqi government,” said the Baghdad-based government, according to AP. “The draft law proposed by the foreign affairs committee in the U.S. Congress is rejected and it will lead to more division in the region and we urge it be stopped.”
President Obama has been reluctant to arm and provide direct military assistance to the Kurdish Peshmerga, some of the most effective fighters taking on ISIS on the ground in northern Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region.
The Department of State said the Obama administration opposes providing military assistance directly to the Kurdish and Sunni fighters.
“The policy of this Administration is clear and consistent in support of a unified Iraq, and that we’ve always said a unified Iraq is stronger, and it’s important to the stability of the region as well,” Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman told reporters. “Our military assistance and equipment deliveries, our policy remains the same there as well, that all arms transfers must be coordinated via the sovereign central government of Iraq. We believe this policy is the most effective way to support the coalition’s efforts.”
“So we look forward to working with Congress on language that we could support on this important issue, but the draft bill, as you noted, in the House – this is very early in the process here for the NDAA – as currently written on this issue, of course, does not reflect Administration policy,” she added.
On deeming the Kurdish Peshmerga and Sunni forces a country so that they can receive direct aid, Harf said it is the executive branch’s prerogative to recognize nations.
It is uncertain whether the NDAA provision to arm and fund the Kurds and the Sunni tribal fighters will survive through the debate process in the full House.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has been demanding complete independence from Iraq for years on behalf of the Kurds who want a nation of their own, something that Iraq and the United States oppose.
The Obama administration’s opposition to directly arming the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Sunni fighters is in line with Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia was one of the most ardent opponents of the U.S. military during the Iraq war.
Follow Edwin Mora on Twitter: @EdwinMora83.