The top Kurdish diplomat in Washington pushed back assertively Friday against comments this week by a group of Yazidi-Americans, who had expressed fears about a growing U.S. and European strategy to channel Western military hardware to Kurdish militias in the fight against Islamic State extremists in northern Iraq.
In a story published Thursday by The Washington Times, the Yazidi-Americans accused the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of attempting to exploit the plight of religious minorities in the area to manipulate Western powers into providing weaponry to the Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga.
One of the Yazidi-Americans said Kurdish forces had abandoned his brethren near Sinjar Moutain in northern Iraq and another went so far as to accuse the KRG of being complicit in a genocide unfolding against the group.
On Friday, Karwan Zebari, the director of the KRG’s diplomatic office in Washington, called such claims “absolutely absurd and unjust,” and said KRG peshmerga forces have done everything in their power to protect the Yazidis and other minority groups in the area from annihilation at the hands of the Islamic state extremists.
During the days that led up to the stranding of tens of thousands of Yazidis on Sinjar Mountain last week, said Mr. Zebari, “peshmerga forces became overwhelmed by heavy equipment that the Islamic state fighters were using — American equipment that the extremists had captured earlier from fleeing Iraqi government security forces.”
“They were being overwhelmed and yet, they kept fighting until the last bullet,” he told The Times in an interview. “To call that betrayal, or being somehow complicit in a genocide is an absolutely absurd and unjust accusation against the peshmerga and the KRG.
“What actually happened is that Kurdish units fought every minute to protect people in the region, along with minorities, including Yazidis, Christians and others,” Mr. Zebari said, adding that, on retreat, Kurdish forces warned Yadizis in the town of Sinjar to flee into the mountains.
“Some even went up to the mountain with them to continue to protect such a vulnerable population,” he said.
His comments underscore the chaos unfolding in northern Iraq as a result of the surge during recent months by al Qaeda-inspired extremists with the Islamic State group, which declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate spanning the Iraq-Syria border in late June.
In response to the situation, the United States and its allies in Europe have begun delivering American and European military hardware to Kurdish forces in the region, in hopes that they will take the lead in fighting the Islamic State group on the ground.
It’s a strategy that represents something of a reversal in overall policy by Washington, which has for years maintained a guarded posture against some militias that fall under the Kurdish peshmerga umbrella.
Since the late-1990s the Kurdistan Workers’ Party — known by the English-language acronym of PKK — has been kept on the State Department’s official list of foreign terrorist organizations. Its status was for years tied to attacks carried out against the government of Turkey, just north of Iraq.
The Obama administration avoided mention of the PKK in remarks on the evolving situation in northern Iraq. President Obama has used broad terms to praise Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State fighters and working to protect minority groups like the Yazidis.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama said a team of U.S. officials had determined the crisis involving tens of thousands of Yazidis who were trapped by the extremists on Sinjar Mountain had abated because of a combination of American air strikes on ISIL positions, airdrops of food and water in the area, and help from Kurdish forces.
“The civilians who remain, continue to leave, aided by Kurdish forces and Yazidis, who are helping to facilitate the safe passage of their families,” Mr. Obama said.