BAGHDAD: Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki ordered his air force for the first time to back Kurdish forces against Islamic State fighters after the Sunni militants made another dramatic push through the north, state television reported yesterday.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who cut their teeth fighting Saddam Hussein’s troops, were regarded as one of the few forces capable of standing up to the Sunni insurgents, who faced almost no opposition from Maliki’s US-trained army during their lightning advance through the north in June.
Then on Sunday the Islamic State inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds with a rapid advance through three towns to reach the Mosul Dam, acquiring a fifth oil field to fund its operations along the way.
State television and witnesses said the Islamic State had seized Iraq’s biggest dam. Kurdish peshmerga officials said they had pushed militants from the dam area and were in control of it. This could not be immediately confirmed.
Despite predictions from Kurdish commanders that their forces would launch a successful counter-offensive, one senior Kurdish official urged the United States to step in and provide weapons “for the sake of fighting terrorism”.
Kurdish commanders whose units came under attack from Islamic State fighters told Reuters they faced overwhelming firepower, were taken by surprise and that militants had in many cases started shooting from villages where they had struck up alliances with residents.
The areas that the Kurds lost were not part of their semi-autonomous region, but had been seized in the north after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Maliki has been at odds with the Kurds over budgets, oil and land, and tensions deepened after the Islamic State seized control of large swathes of land in the north and west of OPEC member Iraq.
In July, the Kurdish political bloc ended all participation in Iraq’s national government in protest over Maliki’s accusation that Kurds were allowing terrorists to stay in Arbil, the capital of their semi-autonomous region known as Kurdistan.
Opponents accuse Maliki of being an authoritarian ruler with a sectarian agenda whose alienation of Sunnis fuelled the insurgency. Currently ruling in a caretaker capacity after an inconclusive election in April, he has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds and even some fellow Shias to step aside to make room for a less polarising figure.
The Kurdish region is pressing the Obama administration for sophisticated weapons it says Kurdish fighters need to push back the Islamic State fighters threatening their region. The requested supplies include tanks, sniper equipment, armoured personnel carriers, artillery and ammunition.