Kurds mustering to fend off Islamic State advance in northern Iraq

A general view of the dam in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed, File)
A general view of the dam in Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, Oct. 31, 2007. (AP Photo/ Khalid Mohammed, File) AP

Kurdish military forces scrambled Monday to reinforce their positions in northern Iraq, including an unusual request to the United States for military assistance, one day after militants from the Islamist State routed Kurdish troops from three key towns near northern Iraq’s largest dam.

Kurdish pershmerga militia could be seen streaming out of Dohuk, the administrative capital for one of the three regions that make up the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, and a visit to military barracks in this city found them largely empty.

Local television reports described troops massing to bolster front lines 30 miles away, and while there was no noticeable panic in this mountain city, it was clear officials were moving quickly to overcome a surprising defeat over the weekend for the peshmerga, whose troops are reputed to be the best in Iraq.

Officials conceded that two towns, Kummar and Sinjar, remained in Islamic State hands and that tens of thousands of Yazidis, a Kurdish religious minority that for years has been targeted by radical Islamists, had sought refuge in Kurdistan.

A third city, Wana, which sits on the Tigris River, was retaken by Kurdish forces, however.

Control of another key location, the Mosul Dam, which controls much of the water in northern Iraq, was still being contested. Kurdish officials said they remained in control of the site, and U.S. defense and intelligence officials in Washington said they had no reason to doubt that assertion.

But the U.S. officials also cautioned that the situation changes by the hour. “The dam is certainly contested,” one defense official said. He declined to be identified by name because he was not authorized to speak to a reporter about the events.

One Sunni Muslim man reached by telephone in Sinjar said Monday that the militants were rounding up and executing local government and municipal workers.

“They have a checkpoint 50 feet from my house and I can see them arresting people right now,” he said, declining to give his name for fear of reprisal. “Last night they arrested and executed four of my cousins because they worked for the municipality, and already they have begun destroying the homes of the people who fled.”

Another resident of Sinjar said that Yazidi families who had been unable to flee were being harassed and in some cases executed, and that it appeared as though militants were abducting large numbers of small children from each family.

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s foreign minister, Falah Mustafa, confirmed that he’d asked U.S. officials at the American consulate in Irbil, the KRG capital, for military assistance _ a request that under ordinary circumstances would come only from the central government in Baghdad and then only on behalf of the Iraqi army. But the Iraqi army fled northern Iraq in early June in the face of the Islamic State, and since then only the Kurds’ peshmerga militia has confronted extremist forces in the north.

Mustafa said U.S. officials in Irbil were receptive to the request, which he did not detail. He said that they had promised to “intently look into the case.”

U.S. officials in Washington declined to comment for publication. Privately, however, several said that such assistance would present challenges to U.S. foreign policy, which provides for military assistance only to governments. However, they said, the United States might be able to provide such assistance covertly through the CIA.

An official in the office of Dohuk’s governor said new weapons from the United States were critical if the Kurdish forces were to be expected to rebuff the Islamic State along the nearly 900 miles of Kurdish border that now touch territory the Islamists control. He said the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, which has fought bitterly with the Kurds over oil revenues and other issues for years, has done nothing to modernize peshmerga weaponry.

“The last time we received new weapons was 2003, when the Americans let us take from Saddam’s old stockpiles,” the official said, speaking anonymously because he said on the record comment could come only from the governor himself, and he was unavailable. “The Iraqi government in Baghdad received modern weapons and armored vehicles from the Americans, but because of our political tensions with Baghdad, the Maliki government never shared these weapons with us. And the Americans would not let us buy anything independently.”

He said it was ironic that the Islamic State had captured millions of dollars worth of modern U.S. weaponry as its forces overran Iraqi military bases in recent weeks. “So now we have to beg the Americans for modern weapons to fight the Islamic State . . . because they’re equipped with modern American weapons they took from the Iraqi government,” he said.

Despite his recent questioning of Kurdish loyalty, Maliki himself on Monday ordered the country’s small and antiquated air force to provide support to the Kurdish fighters _ though recent history suggests that support won’t provide Kurdish forces with an overwhelming advantage. With only a small number of planes, the air force has proved of little value in the Iraqi government’s unsuccessful efforts to reverse the Islamic State’s advance.

There were also reports that forces loyal to the Kurdish Workers Party, or PKK, had been redeployed from Turkey and Syria to open a new front against the Islamic State on the western border between Iraq and Syria. A PKK commander reached by phone confirmed that some PKK troops had been ordered to move to counter Islamic State advances, but he could not confirm local claims that as many as 6,000 PKK fighters had been committed to a new front to the west near the Iraq-Syria border.

One peshmerga commander interviewed near the front lines – he refused to be identified because of military regulations – said that the attacks on Sinjar and Zummar were so rapid and backed by such heavy firepower that the small local garrisons had little choice but to withdraw.

“They came so fast from three sides that we were unable to move reinforcements into place fast enough,” he said. “They had heavy machine guns and mortars and there was little we could do but regroup for a counterattack.”

When that counterattack might come was unknown, but there were signs it was in the works. In addition to preparations in Dohuk, Irbil’s airport, three hours to the south, appeared Monday to have become a staging area. Planes loaded with military equipment could be seen arriving at the airport, but officials refused to say where it was arriving from.