- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 20, 2014

A key House Republican is pushing the Obama administration to expand U.S. military support to Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the battle against the Islamic State, calling for Washington to begin channeling heavy weaponry directly to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government.

Rep. Ed Royce of California, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, introduced legislation Thursday that would give the White House “temporary” authority to ship American “anti-tank and anti-armor weapons, armored vehicles, long-range artillery” and other equipment directly to the Kurds.

The legislation would give the president “three years” to provide such weapons without having to seek reapproval from Congress. It would represent a significant change in course from the current U.S. policy of allowing officials in the central government in Baghdad to determine what American equipment gets shipped to the Kurds in northern Iraq.

In a statement Thursday, Mr. Royce’s office noted that Kurdish peshmerga forces are battling the Islamic State on the ground and lamented that the Obama administration “has not provided … the heavy weapons and armored vehicles that they need.”

“The U.S. has provided limited ‘resupply’ of light weapons to Iraqi Kurds, but only after Baghdad signs off on every shipment, which has delayed critical supplies as ISIL advances,” the statement said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

In his own statement, Mr. Royce said: “Our critical partner in the fight against ISIL is badly outgunned … Despite being armed mainly with antiquated weapons, the Iraqi Kurdish ‘peshmerga’ forces have proven to be the most effective ground force currently fighting ISIL.”

His legislation’s introduction comes a day after a suicide car bomb exploded in front of the Kurdish government’s provincial council building in the northern city of Irbil — a lethal attack believed to have been carried out by Islamic State extremists.

It also comes a day after the Obama administration signaled openness to providing more support to the peshmerga. On Wednesday, State Department spokesman Jeff Rathke told reporters that President Obama “has pledged to expand our efforts to support the Iraqi forces, including the Iraqi Kurdish forces.”

It was not immediately clear whether the administration will embrace Mr. Royce’s call for providing arms directly to the Kurds

“We are continuing to coordinate with the international community to provide the Iraqi Government and the Kurdish forces what is needed,” Mr. Rathke said Wednesday. “Our policy in that respect hasn’t changed.”

If the White House were to support the approach called for by Mr. Royce, it could be seen as a shift in U.S. policy toward backing an independent Kurdish state — a break from the administration’s current call for a more inclusive central government in Baghdad that represents Iraq’s Sunnis, Kurdish and Shiite factions.

Sources have told The Washington Times this week that Kurdish leaders quietly favor carving out a separate nation for themselves.

Back-and-forth over such issues have been playing out behind-the-scenes this week as a high-level delegation of Kurdish officials visited Washington to press on the U.S. government to provide heavier weapons to peshmerga fighters in the ground war against the Islamic State.

The delegation has been headed by Fuad Hussein, chief of staff for Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani. In an interview this week with Rudaw, a Kurdish media network, Mr. Hussein said “the U.S. and some other countries support us from the sky, but we are alone on the ground.”

“This is going to be a long-term war [that] we won’t be able to sustain,” Mr. Hussein said, adding that “this war needs different types of weapons” than what the Kurds possess.

Mr. Royce’s legislation asserts that peshmerga fighters are facing off against Islamic State extremists who captured a trove of U.S.-made military hardware from retreating Iraqi security forces in June. Among the equipment were some 1,500 Humvees, other armored vehicles and transport trucks, a host of GPS-guided artillery and roughly 4,000 heavy machine guns.

• Guy Taylor can be reached at gtaylor@washingtontimes.com.

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