Leading European powers said this week they would provide weapons and military support to Iraq’s Kurds as they battle an Islamist insurgency that seeks to dismantle the Iraqi state and establish a caliphate spanning the whole of Mesopotamia.
Writing in The Telegraph on Sunday, British prime minister David Cameron announced that his government was identifying what equipment to supply to the Kurdish forces, “from body armor to specialist counterexplosive equipment.”
While he ruled out sending British troops back into Iraq, the premier recognized that the threat posed by the self-declared Islamic State in the country “cannot simply be removed by airstrikes alone.” If the West does not act “to stem the onslaught of this exceptionally dangerous terrorist movement,” he warned, “it will only grow stronger until it can target us on the streets of Britain.”
Earlier in the week, The Telegraph had reported that Britain would initially supply high tech equipment such as night vision goggles but that ammunition and weapons could be sent if the Kurds requested it.
France and Germany — which opposed America’s and Britain’s invasion of Iraq in 2003 — also promised to lend support.
“France intends to play an active role by supplying, in coordination with its partners and Iraq’s new authorities, all the necessary assistance,” a statement from President François Hollande’s office read.
German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen told ARD television her country would not supply weaponry but provide armored vehicles, protective vests and tents. This way, Germany can “relieve other partners who are sending weapons,” she said.
Sending arms would be highly controversial in pacific Germany yet Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the foreign minister, did not rule it out in a ZDF interview on Thursday, saying he could not “exclude the possibility of exporting weapons if the threat level holds.”
European Union foreign ministers agreed to support the Kurds during a council meeting in Brussels on Friday but the reluctance of neutral Austria, Ireland and Sweden, which are not in NATO, prevented a common military policy from being adopted.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters have taken a leading role in combatting the Islamists since government forces fled when they conquered Mosul, Iraq’s second city, two months ago. The militants, who adhere to a purist interpretation of Islam, now control swathes of territory in an arc from Aleppo in Syria to near the western edge of Baghdad.
The Kurds initially took advantage of the situation to capture the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields. But the Islamists later took the Mosul Dam, the country’s largest single source of electricity, and advanced on Irbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
In the first joint operation with Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, American warplanes and unmanned drones struck targets near the dam on Saturday.
President Barack Obama ordered airstrikes against the Islamic State last week and said the United States would not allow the creation of a caliphate in the region.
The resignation of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki on Thursday cleared the way for increased American arms shipments. The United States had blamed the premier for driving Iraq’s alienated Sunni minority into revolt, even though they had helped him to power in 2006.
Maliki’s close relations with Shia Iran and exclusionary policies in favor of members of his own sect convinced some Sunni Arab militias and tribes to join the Islamic State’s insurgency or at least not to stand in its way.
Cameron also welcomed Maliki’s likely replacement by Haider al-Abadi, an engineer who lived in exile in Britain until the 2003 invasion. “I spoke to him earlier this week and assured him that we will support any attempts to forge a genuinely inclusive government that can unite all Iraqi communities,” he wrote.