WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Obama administration has begun directly providing weapons to Kurdish forces who have started to make gains against Islamic militants in northern Iraq, senior U.S. officials said Monday, but the aid has so far been limited to automatic rifles and ammunition.
Previously, the U.S. sold arms in Iraq only to the government in Baghdad, some of which would be transferred to the Kurdish forces in the north. The Kurdish peshmerga fighters had been losing ground to Islamic State militants in recent weeks, however.
The weapons appeared to be coming through intelligence agencies covertly and not through regular Defense Department channels.
The officials wouldn’t say which U.S. agency is providing the arms, but one official said it isn’t the Pentagon. A Kurdish official said the weapons were coming from “U.S. intelligence agencies,” and a senior Pentagon official said the Defense Department may yet get involved. The CIA has historically done similar quiet arming operations.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation publicly.
The move to directly aid the Kurds underscores the level of U.S. concern about the Islamic State militants’ gains in the north, and reflects the persistent administration view that the Iraqis must take the necessary steps to solve their own security problems.
To bolster that effort, the administration is also very close to approving plans for the Pentagon to arm the Kurds, a senior official said. In recent days, the U.S. military has been helping facilitate weapons deliveries from the Iraqis to the Kurds, providing logistical assistance and transportation to the north.
But the Kurdish government official said Monday the U.S. weapons being directly sent to Irbil – a northern Iraqi city where U.S. personnel are based and where Islamic State militants are advancing on Kurdish forces – are very limited in scope and number, and mostly consist of light arms like AK-47s and ammunition.
He said the American lethal aid is still not enough to battle the militants, even though Peshmerga and other Kurdish forces were supplemented with similar munitions from Baghdad over the weekend
The State Department sought to downplay the significance of the apparent shift in U.S. policy.
The militants have “obtained some heavy weaponry, and the Kurds need additional arms and we’re providing those – there’s nothing new here,” said department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
She said the U.S. was working with Baghdad to speed up deliveries of “badly needed arms” to Kurdish forces in the north. The Iraqi government, she said, “has made deliveries from its own stocks and we are working to do the same.”
The additional assistance comes as Kurdish forces on Sunday took back two towns from the Islamic insurgents, aided in part by U.S. airstrikes in the region. President Barack Obama authorized the airstrikes to protect U.S. interests and personnel in the region, including at facilities in Irbil, as well as Yazidi refugees fleeing militants.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking to reporters in Sydney, where he is attending an Asian defense ministers meeting, said the airstrikes “have been very effective from all the reports that we’ve received on the ground.” He declined to detail how or when the U.S. might expand its assistance to Iraq, or if military assessment teams currently in Baghdad would be moving to a more active role advising the Iraqi forces.