Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers OK fighters for Syria
BRAM JANSSEN & ZEINA KARAM
Oct. 22, 2014
IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Lawmakers in Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish region Wednesday authorized peshmerga forces to go to neighboring Syria and help fellow Kurds combat Islamic State militants in the key border town of Kobani, providing much-needed boots on the ground.
The unprecedented deployment will almost certainly depend on the support of Turkey, whose president criticized a U.S. airdrop of arms to Kurdish fighters after some of the weapons wound up in the hands of the extremists.
Turkey, which has riled Kurdish leaders and frustrated Washington by refusing to allow fighters or weapons into Kobani, said this week it would help Iraqi Kurdish fighters cross into Syria to help their brethren against the militants, who also are being attacked by a U.S.-led campaign of airstrikes.
But it is not clear how many fighters will be allowed in or whether they will be allowed to carry enough weapons to make an impact.
The Kurds of Syria and Iraq have become a major focal point in the war against the Islamic State group, with Kurdish populations in both countries coming under significant threat by the militants' lightning advance.
Lt. Gen. Frederick Hodges, the outgoing commander of NATO's Land Command in Izmir, Turkey, said the Turks have agreed to open up "a land bridge of sorts" so that the peshmerga can get into Kobani to help with the fighting there.
"It seems to me that between the United States, Turkey and other countries, they are figuring out what is permissible to make sure that ISIL is not successful and that it is something that Turkey can live with," he added, using an acronym for the group.
Anwar Muslim, a Kobani-based senior Kurdish official, praised the parliament's decision, saying "all help is welcome." He said there seemed to be a solidifying international push to help Kobani combat the militants.
"The next days will show the seriousness" of the Turks, he said.
In August, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds took part in cross-border operations to help rescue tens of thousands of displaced people from the Yazidi minority group under threat by the IS militants in Iraq's Sinjar Mountains.
The fight in Kobani has also grabbed the world's attention and raised sympathy for the outgunned Kurds.
The overwhelming vote in the Kurdish parliament to send fighters to Kobani underscored growing cooperation between Kurds in these countries and marked a first mission for the peshmerga outside Iraq.
Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurdish politician and Iraq's long-serving foreign minister, told Al-Arabiya TV the decision was "part of an understanding" reached between Kurdish, Turkish and U.S. officials to provide military aid to Kobani.
"This is a big turning point in Kurdish history," said Youssef Mohammed, the speaker of parliament. "Troops used to be sent to occupy Kurdish lands, but now we are sending soldiers to protect our Kurdish brothers abroad," he said.
There were few details about the fighting force, however, and Kurdish officials said they would be worked out later.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the United States made a mistake in airdropping weapons to Kurdish fighters in Kobani earlier this week because some of the weapons ended up in IS hands.
"It turns out that what was done was wrong," he said, according to Turkey's private Dogan news agency.
The Turkish government is reluctant to aid the Syrian Kurdish forces — the People's Protection Units, or YPG — because it views them as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, which has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
The Pentagon confirmed that IS militants were able to seize one of the 28 bundles of weapons and medical supplies intended for Kurdish fighters. Col. Steve Warren said it appears the wind caused the parachute to go off-course, and that the weapons in the bundle were not enough to give the enemy any type of advantage.
A video uploaded by a media group loyal to the IS group showed the weapons seized included hand grenades, ammunition and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
The caches were dropped early Monday to Kurds in embattled Kobani. Differences about how to defend Kobani have sparked tensions between Turkey and its NATO partners.
Turkey's decision to give Kurds passage to fight in Syria marked a shift in position, even though Ankara in recent years has built friendly ties with the leadership of the largely autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.
Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hekmat in Irbil said there is still a lot of uncertainty on the details of the deployment, including how many forces will be sent and when.
"We're sending the peshmerga, not to become YPG but to fight alongside the YPG," Hekmat said. "We will send the peshmerga to do their job for as long as they're needed and to come back after that."
Hekmat said Iraqi forces will also provide weapons, but he did not say what kind.
Turkey is under pressure to take greater action against the IS militants — not only from the West but also from Kurds in Syria and Turkey who accuse Ankara of inaction while their people are slaughtered. Earlier this month across Turkey, widespread protests threatened to derail talks to end the PKK insurgency.
Sunni extremists of the Islamic State group, which has rampaged across Iraq and Syria, have been attacking Kobani for a month. The U.S. and its allies are assisting the Kurds with airstrikes targeting IS infrastructure in and around the town.
Meanwhile, Kurdish officials and doctors said they believed Islamic State militants had released some kind of toxic gas in a district in eastern Kobani.
Aysa Abdullah, a senior Kurdish official based in the town, said the attack took place late Tuesday, and that a number of people suffered symptoms that included dizziness and watery eyes. She and other officials said doctors lacked the equipment to determine what kinds of chemicals were used.
The reports could not be independently confirmed. Kurdish officials have made similar allegations before.
Also Wednesday, Syria's information minister said the country's air force destroyed two of three fighter jets seized and reportedly test-flown over Aleppo by the Islamic State group last week.
Omran al-Zoubi told Syrian TV late Tuesday that Syrian aircraft bombed the jets on the runway as they landed at Jarrah air base.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that IS militants flew three MiG fighter jets with the help of former Iraqi air force pilots who were now members of the militant group. The report could not be independently confirmed, and U.S. officials said they had no reports of the militants flying jets.
The group is known to have seized warplanes from at least one air base captured from the Syrian army in Raqqa province earlier this year. Militant websites had posted photos of IS fighters with the warplanes, but it was unclear if they were operational.
Karam reported from Beirut. Associated Press writers Desmond Butler in Istanbul, Turkey, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Elena Becatoros in Suruc, Turkey, contributed reporting.