BAGHDAD — After commencing airstrikes Friday to support Kurdish and Iraqi forces battling militants from the Islamic State groups, the U.S. has begun directly providing weapons to the Kurdish peshmerga forces who have started to make gains against the al-Qaida breakaway group that controls much of the north.
U.S. airstrikes have reinvigorated Iraqi Kurdish forces battling the Islamic State and on Sunday, the Kurdish peshmerga fighters retook two towns — Makhmour and al-Gweir, some 28 miles from the Kurdish capital of Irbil — from the Sunni militants in what was one of their first victories after weeks of retreat.
The successes, however, were balanced out by news of a defeat in the far eastern Diyala province where Kurdish forces were driven out of the town of Jalula after fierce fighting against Sunni militants.
The militants blasted their way into the town at midnight using a truck bomb followed up with several suicide bombers on foot, said a police officer and a army official, adding that at least 14 Kurdish fighters were killed.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.
The move to directly arm the Kurds underscores the level of U.S. concern about the Islamic State’s gains. The officials wouldn’t say which U.S. agency is providing the arms or what weapons are being sent, but one official said it isn’t the Pentagon. The CIA has historically done similar quiet arming operations.
The militant advances and the political turmoil has deepened Iraq’s humanitarian crisis, with some 200,000 Iraqis recently joining the 1.5 million people already displaced from violence this year. The U.S., which has been conducting airdrops of food and wastr, also announced the deployment of a disaster response team to Iraq help distribute humanitarian aid to those forced from their homes in the fresh wave of violence in the country’s north.
Meanwhile, Iraq’s government is falling into disarray over political infighting.
Iraq’s new president today snubbed the powerful incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and nominated the deputy parliament speaker to form the new government, raising fears of more troubles in the government as country faces the threat of Sunni militants in the north.
In a televised address Fouad Massoum gave Haider al-Ibadi, who was selected by a coalition of Shiite political parties, 30 days to form a new government and present it to parliament for approval.
The ceremony came hours after the embattled al-Maliki delivered a surprise speech at midnight accusing the Massoum of blocking his reappointment as prime minister and carrying out “a coup against the constitution and the political process.”
Critics say al-Maliki, a Shiite, has contributed to the crisis facing the country by monopolizing power and pursuing a sectarian agenda that alienated the country’s Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
Al-Ibadi’s nomination came hours after al-Maliki deployed his elite security forces in the streets of Baghdad, partially closed two main streets — popular spots for pro and anti-government rallies — as hundreds of his supporters took to the streets, raising fears that he might use force to stay in power.
Speaking to reporters in Sydney, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. stands “absolutely squarely behind President Massoum,” and called for restraint. “There should be no use force, no introduction of troops or militias into this moment of democracy for Iraq.”
Kerry said a new government “is critical in terms of sustaining the stability and calm in Iraq,” and that “our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters.”