Iraq's ethnic Kurds are longtime U.S. allies and have put up the toughest resistance to the Sunni extremists in the so-called Islamic State that has captured swaths or Iraq's north and west.
They're getting help from U.S. air strikes, but also need heavier weapons of their own to match the firepower of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Weapons have been promised by the U.S. and other countries, but getting them through the central government in Baghdad has hampered the mission, according to Kurdish commanders.
"We have heard weapons are coming, but so far we haven't seen any. As you know, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense doesn't give us any weapons. And that just encourages ISIS to attack us," says Esmat Rajab, a commander in the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga.
Rajab speaks on a hilltop overlooking the terrain that's at stake in the Islamic State onslaught. Before him is the village of Bashiqa, which minority Yazidis fled as the Islamic State took over. They still hold it. Beyond the village is the large city of Mosul, which the Islamic State took over in June.
The Pentagon said this week that Baghdad is shipping some "equipment and assistance" to the Kurds, but the U.S. is exploring more direct options.
In Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish northern region, peshmerga spokesman Helgurd Ali says morale is strong since the Kurds retook the Mosul dam from the Islamists. But he's frustrated at Baghdad's attitude toward arming the Kurds.
"In the face of this crisis, if Baghdad still says 'no' to international weapons, then let them send us the weapons. We've waited for 8 years; they didn't send anything. Not one belt of ammunition," he says. "We can't trust Baghdad, and that's why we have to turn to the international community."
Baghdad's Mistrust Of The Kurds
But countries have been reluctant to ignore Baghdad's objections and arm the Kurds directly — though the Kurds say a small amount of arms has started coming into Erbil's airport.
Ali says they need heavier weapons, including something strong enough to pierce the armor on the U.S.-made vehicles the Islamists captured from the Iraqi army when its fleeing soldiers left them behind.
Baghdad's reluctance to see weapons flowing to the peshmerga — which is widely considered the most able fighting force to counter the Islamic State — seems counter-productive. But analysts say there's some logic to it.
Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, says one reason for Baghdad's distrust of the Kurds was apparent as the Islamic State took Mosul in early June.
Amid the confusion and fear of the Islamic State advance, Kurdish forces swept into the city of Kirkuk and took over. Control of the oil-rich city has been contested between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) for a decade. Dodge says that overall, the Kurds have expanded their territory by some 40 percent recently.
"That's what's worrying Baghdad. The KRG has expanded its territory by 40 percent by force of arms," he says. "Once ISIS has been defeated, that will become a profound problem going forward for all parties concerned, the Kurds as well as the government in Baghdad."
A 'Coup-Proof' Iraqi Army
That dispute complicates any sustainable solution to the security problems in the north. Dodge says the mistakes date back at least as far as the Bush administration, which rebuilt the Iraqi army more to police the country internally than to handle military offenses or protect the borders. Outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki made things worse, according to Dodge.
"In effect what he did was to 'coup-proof' the army by breaking the chain of command, rubbishing its esprit de corps, and placing of men loyal to him at the senior ranks," Dodge says. "Which explains, along with the profound corruption, why the Iraqi army collapsed so quickly in Mosul."
The Kurdish forces are one-fifth the size of the Iraqi army. They can be increased somewhat, but are not suited to fighting a mobile, opportunistic adversary like ISIS. Once the peshmerga ventures out of areas populated by Kurds, they are off their familiar home turf and surrounded by suspicious locals.
Dodge says that what Iraq needs is a new government in Baghdad, which is currently under negotiation, that can undo the damage caused by Maliki's rule.
"(They need to) refocus on restructuring the Iraqi army, to make it a fighting force that can defend the territory of Iraq for all of Iraq's citizens, not just for its ex-prime minister," Dodge says.
That's essentially what American forces thought they were on the way to doing before they pulled out of Iraq.
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In northern Iraq, ethnic Kurdish forces are battling fighters from the Islamic State. The Kurds are longtime allies of the U.S., and they are receiving help from U.S. airstrikes, but they say they also need new weapons. And Kurdish commanders complain that shipments of arms from the U.S. and elsewhere are being held up because the Arab government in Baghdad wants to control the flow of weapons into the region. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Erbil in northern Iraq.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: From a hilltop overlooking the abandoned minority Yazidi village of Bashika, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander points beyond the village to the city of Mosul, where Islamic State units remain in control. Esmat Rajab says he's eager for the day the Peshmerga rids the city of the fighters he refers to as ISIS, once badly needed weapons reach the front lines.
ESMAT RAJAB: (Through translator) We have heard weapons are coming, but so far we haven't seen any. As you know, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense doesn't give us any weapons. And that just encourages ISIS to attack us.
KENYON: The Pentagon says Baghdad is shipping some equipment and assistance to the Kurds, but the U.S. is exploring other options. In her Erbil, Peshmerga spokesman, Helgurd Ali, says morale is strong since the Peshmerga retook the Mosul Dam from the Islamists. But he's frustrated at Baghdad's attitude towards arming the Kurds.
HELGURD ALI: (Through translator) In the face of this crisis, if Baghdad still says no to international weapons, then let them send us the weapons. We waited for eight years, they didn't send anything. Not one belt of ammunition. We can't trust Baghdad, and that's why we have to turn to the international community.
KENYON: But the international community has been reluctant to ignore Baghdad's objections and arm the Kurds directly. Although Kurdish officials say some weapons are beginning to arrive via Erbil Airport. Ali says they need heavier weapons, including something strong enough to pierce the armor on the U.S.-made vehicles the Islamists stole from the Iraqi army.
On the face of it, Baghdad's reluctance to weapons flowing directly to the Peshmerga, widely considered the most able-fighting force in Iraq at the moment, seems counterproductive if not disastrous. But analysts say it's not that simple.
Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics says yes, Baghdad politics are, in his words, in a hell of a mess. But he says, if you want to understand why the central government doesn't want to see the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, get a big weapons boost for its military, just look at how amid the confusion after Mosul fell to ISIS fighters in June, the Peshmerga swept into the city of Kirkuk - oil-rich territory long contested by the Kurds and the central government.
TOBY DODGE: After June 10, the Peshmerga expanded its own territory by 40 percent. That's what's worrying Baghdad, I think. So you would then say that the KRG has expanded its territory by 40 percent by force of arms. And that will - once ISIS has been defeated, that will become a profound problem going forward for all parties concerned - the Kurds as well as the government in Baghdad.
KENYON: None of which makes a viable, sustainable solution any easier to find. Dodge says the mistakes date back as least as far as the Bush administration, which rebuilt the Iraqi army, more to police the domestic population than to defend borders or execute military offensives. The mistakes were compounded by outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
DODGE: If you add to that what Maliki did from 2006 until recently, in effect, what he did was coup-proof the army by breaking the chain of command, rubbishing its esprit de corps, and placing men loyal to him at the senior ranks, which explains along with a profound corruption, why the Iraqi army collapsed so quickly in Mosul.
KENYON: The Kurdish forces, at one-fifth the size of the Iraqi army, can be built up somewhat, but aren't well-suited to fighting such a highly mobile opportunistic adversary, especially outside their own Northern Territory. What's needed, says Dodge, is a new government in Baghdad that can undo the damage wrought by Maliki.
DODGE: And refocused on restructuring the Iraqi Army to make it the fighting force that can defend the territory of Iraq for all of Iraq's citizens, not just for its ex-Prime Minister.
KENYON: In other words, essentially what American forces thought they were well on the way to doing before they pulled out of Iraq. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Erbil. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.