- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Kurdish peshmerga fighters who have proved the most effective force against the Islamic State have not been paid for the past three months and badly need winter gear and ammunition if they are to hold ground seized from the extremists over the past year, a top Kurdish intelligence official said Tuesday.

Lahur Talabani, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Zanyari Intelligence Agency, also warned on a rare visit to Washington that any campaign to recapture Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — from the group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, is unlikely to succeed without the direct involvement of troops from the U.S. or another member of the Washington-led coalition against the extremists.

President Obama has deployed roughly 4,500 U.S. ground troops to Iraq over the past year but has stressed that the forces — along with a small contingency of Special Forces deployed in recent days to Syria — are on a train-and-assist mission only and will not engage in combat in either nation.

Mr. Talabani took care to avoid openly criticizing the Obama administration but wasted no time voicing a frustration that outside powers, including the U.S., have wrongly divided their strategy against the Islamic State into separate campaigns in Syria and Iraq.

“If we talk about trying to push back ISIS and taking the fight to ISIS, we need to start looking at Syria and Iraq in one piece,” he said. “It takes just four hours” for Islamic State militants to move troops from their Syrian stronghold of Raqqa deep into Iraqi territory.

“The borders are gone, and we need to deal with this problem as one problem, and a lot of the time people try to deal with Syria separately and the problem in Iraq and with the KRG separately,” Mr. Talabani said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “I think that needs to change, and it might be changing now.”

Michael Knights, an Iraq specialist at the institute, said, “Kurdish intelligence is essential to U.S. policy in both Iraq and Syria,” and “there’s a vital Kurdish role” in any effort to cut the “Raqqa line” supplying Islamic State operations across Syria and Iraq.

Mr. Talabani, a nephew of popular former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and a rising star in the KRG, praised the U.S. for supporting the peshmerga but said material support was slow to arrive.

“We haven’t been able to pay our peshmerga in the past three months,” he said, adding that the KRG as a whole is “being squeezed by a drop in oil prices.”

“We need winter gear,” he said. “We need more ammunition.”

Some analysts say Washington’s slow response is rooted in Obama administration wariness toward certain elements of the overall Kurdish coalition.

The biggest concern is that the U.S. will be seen to be aiding the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, an ultraleftist, nationalist outfit that Washington lists as a terrorist organization and has for decades waged an insurgency in Turkey from remote bases in northern Iraq.

The fear that U.S. aid to the Kurds is making its way to the PKK has complicated the Obama administration’s attempt to enlist Turkey as a partner against the Islamic State.

Mr. Talabani said a more immediate concern is the Islamic State’s control of Mosul. The occupation would be difficult to break without ground forces from outside powers, he said.

“The information we are collecting and the intelligence we have shows almost 75 percent of the tribal leaders in Mosul have given allegiance to ISIL,” Mr. Talabani said. “Right now, unless they are given a choice, they are shown something else, maybe coalition forces on the ground with Iraqi forces, it’s going to be difficult to take away that grass-roots support to ISIL.”

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