Published by Foreign Policy,
The president of Kurdistan’s regional government on Wednesday backed off a long-held demand that the United States directly supply arms to the northern Iraqi region he heads in the war against Islamic State extremists, otherwise known as ISIS.
The direct arming of Kurdish forces is a contentious issue.
The central Iraqi government in Baghdad has opposed direct sales to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters over concerns Kurdish leaders will eventually use the aid to break away from Iraq and create a new country. The Kurds, meanwhile, accuse Baghdad of failing to distribute their share of U.S.-supplied weapons as they take on the brunt of the fighting against the Islamic State in northern Iraq.
“The important point here is that Peshmerga get these weapons,” President Masoud Barzani told an audience at the Atlantic Council in Washington. “How they will come and which way — that’s not as important as the fact that Peshmerga need the weapons to be there.”
The softening of Barzani’s position comes after his meeting with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday, during which the U.S. emphasized its commitment to a federal, democratic, and perhaps most important, united Iraq.
“The meeting was very successful,” said Barzani through a translator. “We have realized and noticed that both President Obama and Vice President Biden … want the Peshmerga to receive the right ammunition and the right weapons.”
The Kurdish president held a follow-up meeting with Biden on Wednesday. It was not immediately clear what was discussed.
Barzani noted that his relationship with the government in Baghdad has improved since last year’s departure of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Still, he said, a number of disagreements remain unresolved.
The two sides have been at loggerheads for years as the Kurds have sold crude oil independently of the central government, signaled their desire for full independence, and pursued secretive arms deals with foreign governments. Last summer, in the heat of intense fighting between the Kurds and the Islamic State, Kurdistan intelligence chief Masrour Barzani told the Washington Post they had received “not a single bullet” from Baghdad. He pleaded with the international community for direct military support.
According to a statement after Tuesday’s meeting, U.S. and Kurdish officials also discussed the campaign to degrade the Islamic State and the status of political efforts to address the concerns of the Iraqi people.
Barzani told the audience on Wednesday that Kurds will hold a referendum on independence from Iraq, but only after hostilities die down. It is a pledge he has made repeatedly for years.
“I cannot say if it will be in the next year, or when, but certainly the independent Kurdistan is coming,” he said. “We want it to be not through violence, not through killing.… It will take place when the security situation is resolved.”