Iraqi Kurd scout unit heads into Kobani; larger group to follow with heavy weapons

An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter walks at a staging area on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, across from the Syrian town of Kobani, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.
An Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighter walks at a staging area on the outskirts of Suruc, near the Turkey-Syria border, across from the Syrian town of Kobani, Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014. AP

A small unit of Iraqi Kurdish fighters entered the besieged Syrian town of Kobani on Thursday to meet with Syrian Kurds battling militants from the Islamic State and to make preparations for the arrival of a larger Iraqi Kurd force, according to Kurdish officials in Iraq and witnesses on the ground near Kobani.

The unit entering Kobani consisted of about 10 Iraqi Kurds, officials here said; the remainder of the force, believed to number about 150, has assembled at a Turkish military base near the border with Syria and will enter Kobani after the scouting unit briefs it on conditions in the besieged town, witnesses near Kobani said.

Turkey, under pressure from the United States, granted permission for the Iraqi Kurds to travel through Turkey with heavy weapons and ammunition, under the assumption that the Iraqi Kurds will operate the equipment. Turkey considers the local fighters, known as the People’s Protection Units, or the YPG by its Kurdish acronym, to be aligned with the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which Turkey has designated a terrorist organization and has fought an intermittent 30-year conflict over the formation of a Kurdish homeland.

Turkey previously had refused to allow PKK fighters to cross from Turkey into Syria and had warned the United States not to supply weapons to the YPG, an admonition the U.S. ignored within hours when it dropped bundles of ammunition, small arms and food to the Kobani defenders nearly two weeks ago. The U.S. also has undertaken a fierce aerial campaign to assist the YPG, striking Islamic State targets near Kobani more than 180 times, including 10 raids on Thursday that hit seven Islamic State fighting positions, five buildings the militants’ had occupied, and two Islamic State units.

More than 800 people have died in the 40 days of combat since the better equipped Islamic State fighters began their assault on Kobani. More than 200,000 have fled the fighting, most of them into Turkey.

“A small unit entered Kobani to meet with its defenders on the best places to set up their equipment and to determine the best way for the unit to enter the town,” a peshmerga official in Iraq, Secretary General Jabar Yawar, said Thursday. “They will report to the peshmerga commanders with their recommendations.”

Yawar said no timetable has been set for the group, which flew to Turkey on Tuesday, to enter the town. Kurdish officials have been reluctant to detail exactly when the larger force might enter because of safety concerns. The main border crossings into Kobani are well within range of Islamic State mortars and heavy machine guns.

In a statement released on Twitter, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said that he’d offered to send many more fighters to assist the town but that the YPG defenders requested only units that could operate heavy weapons. Kobani’s defenders said they are badly outmatched by the Islamic State, which captured huge stockpiles of heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery, mortars and armored vehicles, when its forces overran Iraqi and Syrian military bases in recent months.

Barzani said the Kobani leaders “said they don’t need a fighting force, only a support artillery unit.”

“The deployment of #peshmerga to #Kobane was impossible without Turkish approval and US cooperation,” he tweeted.

Barzani – who has had a tense political relationship with the YPG and PKK in the past over his close relationship with Turkey – also announced he is prepared to send more peshmerga fighters to assist with the defense of Kobani or any of the other Syrian Kurdish enclaves that have been the scene of heavy fighting with the Islamic State.

“This force is on its way to Kobani (and) we wish them success,” he said on Twitter. “We are ready to send more peshmerga forces to Kobani, if we are asked.”

Meanwhile, controversy broke out over the reported deployment Wednesday of moderate Syrian rebel fighters to Kobani. The force, believed to number about 70, is led by a commander, Abdul Jabbar al Akidi, whose influence within the rebel movement is in dispute.

On Thursday, another rebel commander, Nizar al Khateep, told reporters in Istanbul that Akidi’s forces were needed to defend rebel positions in Aleppo from government attack and should not have been moved to Kobani. He said the decision to dispatch them to Kobani “was taken in a rush.”

Video showed the rebels entering Kobani with light and medium weapons.

Roy Gutman in Istanbul contributed to this report.