- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The U.S. and its allies have failed to unify rival Kurdish peshmerga factions fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, according a report published Tuesday, highlighting the risk of a return to internecine war that gripped Iraq’s Kurds during the 1990s.

Analysts at the International Crisis Group also say that Kurdish forces, who are being relied upon heavily by the U.S. and Europe in the ground war against Islamic State extremists, are increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by Iran.

“Rather than shore up Kurdish unity and institutions, the latest iteration of the ‘war on terror’ is igniting old and new internecine tensions and undermining whatever progress has been achieved in turning the peshmergas into a professional, apolitical military force responding to a single chain of command,” states an executive summary of the report.

“It is also paving the way for renewed foreign involvement in Kurdish affairs, notably by Iran,” the summary states, as the lack of clear direction and centralized leadership from Western powers is “encouraging Kurdish land grabs” and deepening sectarian tensions in Iraq.

The report offers a stark alternative to the picture of progress and unity that Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), sought to portray during a visit to Washington last week.

Mr. Barzani said the KRG is poised to hold a referendum on independence during the years ahead, but remains, for now, committed to working with Baghdad in the fight against the Islamic State. He also pushed back against the idea that Iran, sharing a nearly 400-mile border with the KRG, is exerting control over Kurdish forces.

Mr. Barzani acknowledged that Iran has on at least one occasion provided ammunition to the peshmergas, but insisted the Iranian military is not actively coordinating with Kurdish forces.

On a separate front, he broadly hailed the success of the peshmergas in reclaiming territory from the Islamic State and said Obama administration officials had assured him foreign weaponry will flow to the Kurdish forces.

The International Crisis Group report, however, highlighted continuing divisions within those forces and asserted that Western powers have inflamed the situation by pumping in military aid while failing to foster professionalism and cohesion on the ground.

The Obama administration has sought to control the flow of weaponry to the Kurds by requiring all outside military aid to first be approved by the central government in Baghdad, then channeled to the KRG for dissemination to the peshmergas.

Thursday’s report suggested the approach is not working: “Weapons deliveries from a variety of donors are unilateral, mostly uncoordinated and come without strings regarding their distribution and use on the front lines,” the report said.

Weapons have disproportionately benefited peshmerga forces loyal to the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) — Which Mr. Barzani heads — while pushing the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) into “greater reliance on Iranian military assistance.”

While the KDP and PUK battled each other during the mid-1990s, the report maintains that the latter is now also increasing its ties to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish rebel organization in Turkey that Washington has listed as a foreign terrorist organization since 1997.

The end result, according to the report’s summary, is that Kurdish forces are “less effective in fighting [the Islamic State] than they could have been.”

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