U.S. Military Shifts to Helping Kurds Fight Back



By DION NISSENBAUM CONNECT –  Aug. 14, 2014 –  WALL STREET JOURNAL – The U.S. military is turning its focus toward helping Kurdish forces launch a counteroffensive against Sunni militants now that the refugee crisis in the northern Iraqi mountains has abated, American officials said Thursday.American military planners are building a coalition of countries that have agreed to take part in the effort to fly in ammunition, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades the Kurdish fighters need to uproot extremist forces that call themselves the Islamic State, the officials said.

The focus on arming Kurdish fighters represents the next stage of U.S. military operations in Iraq. Earlier, the U.S. military essentially declared victory in preventing the Islamic State from attacking thousands of Iraqi refugees from the country’s Yazidi religious minority hiding in the Sinjar mountains.Until Wednesday, the U.S. military had been preparing to carry out a rescue. But an American team that flew into the mountain range on Wednesday determined that most of those hiding in the mountains had escaped, making such an operation unnecessary. The Yazidis, however, said they still felt vulnerable to a possible genocide.

Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said the U.S. would now focus on helping Kurdish forces and protecting Americans working in the regional Kurdish capital of Erbil. “The threat that ISIL poses is not over,” said Adm. Kirby, referring to an alternative name for the Islamic State. “We think that we’ve had a disruptive effect on ISIL’s ability to threaten Erbil, but we don’t believe that it’s been completely eliminated.”

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France and the U.K. have publicly agreed to help with the arming effort. A number of Middle Eastern nations, which don’t want their role revealed, have also agreed to provide small amounts of weaponry, U.S. officials said.

On Wednesday, the first British plane carrying weapons from an unnamed Eastern European nation landed in northern Iraq to resupply the Kurds, these officials said. “We will continue our work to ensure that Kurdish forces have the military supplies they require, including transporting more equipment from Eastern Europe,” Prime Minister David Cameron’s office said.

The Iraqi government has provided Kurds with several planeloads of weapons, including a half-million rounds of ammunition, several thousand mortar rounds and about 500 rocket-propelled-grenades, said U.S. officials. “That could be enough to get them going,” one American official said. The Pentagon has set up a special task force to coordinate the flights, which comes on the heels of an effort by the Central Intelligence Agency to arm Kurdish forces. Kurdish forces have had some success in retaking ground seized by Islamic State fighters, but the Sunni extremists still control key parts of the country, including the Mosul Dam. That in particular has worried the Pentagon, given its strategic value.

Military planners said there is no discussion of expanding the American military operation beyond the limited goals set by President Barack Obama last week to protect the Yazidis and Americans working in Iraq. U.S. jet fighters and armed drones continued to hit Islamic State forces near Erbil on Thursday. American aircraft destroyed three armored vehicles, including a U.S.-made MRAP, military officials said. U.S. military commanders have said American airstrikes haven’t changed the balance of power on the battlefield in northern Iraq. That has sparked a debate in Washington over whether the U.S. should do more to combat the Islamic State.

Democratic lawmakers in particular have voiced disquiet about the prospect of a prolonged intervention. Zalmay Khalilzad, who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007, by contrast, said the U.S. should deepen its military support by adding more special operations forces advisers to provide Kurdish forces with intelligence and planning. “It’s a bigger problem than the administration has acknowledged or explained to the American people and Congress,” he said. “I don’t know whether they will be able to solve this without a serious American military role.”If Mr. Obama wants to avoid sending combat troops back to Iraq, he will have to take more serious steps to arm U.S. allies in the region, Mr. Khalilzad said.

— Margaret Coker contributed to this article.  Write to Dion Nissenbaum at dion.nissenbaum@wsj.com  – http://online.wsj.com/articles/u-s-military-shifts-to-helping-kurds-fight-back-1408063147