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U.S., Kurdish fates intertwine in jihad threat 10 septembre 2014

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The Wall Street Journal Asia (USA) September 10, 2014, p. 14 & 15

by Joe Parkinson and Adam Entous, Erbil, Iraq

The anti-Islamic State strategy the U.S. is developing first began to take shape a month ago after a series of increasingly urgent phone calls from this Kurdish city.

In one, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani told Vice President Joe Biden the jihadists were within 40 kilometers of Erbil, which is both the capital of the Kurdish region and home to U.S. military, intelligence, diplomatic and corporate offices. The message: Unless the U.S. stepped in, Erbil could fall in days.

“Something in Barzani’s voice made [Mr. Biden] think, ‘We need to do something here,’ ” said a U.S. official describing the call, which Kurdish officials also confirmed.

Later that day, President Barack Obama, who had long resisted pressure from the government in Baghdad to help fight the Islamic State menace, authorized airstrikes on the militants approaching Erbil. He also approved both overt and covert programs to resupply the Kurdish fighters known as the Peshmerga against the jihadist threat spanning the Syria-Iraq border.

The airstrike campaign spread this past weekend as the U.S. sought to stop jihadists threatening a dam on the Euphrates upriver from Baghdad. The administration also is seeking to form an international coalition to fight Islamic State, which Mr. Obama is expected to elaborate on in a speech Wednesday. As the intense telephone contacts with Erbil a month ago show, the Kurds, a people with whom the U.S. has had a decadeslong but sometimes wary partnership, play a central role in U.S. plans to combat the jihadist threat.

In Iraq, administration officials envision Kurdish fighters as a leading edge in a potential ground campaign against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Officials also think that Kurdish fighters in Syria may be critical in battling the jihadists in that country, where the Defense Department is drawing up options that include airstrikes.

In return for the American military help last month, Kurdish and U.S. officials said, the Kurds postponed plans for an independence referendum and agreed to work more closely with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. Kurdish parties on Monday said they had agreed to join the new government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi despite retaining serious concerns over power sharing with Baghdad. The shift was an illustration of how the Islamic State threat, while tearing at the fabric of the Iraqi state, is also in some ways repairing it.

Complicating the U.S. strategy, one Kurdish fighting force is classified as a terrorist organization by Washington, based on its violent campaign for greater autonomy in Turkey. The U.S. won’t work with that group, the PKK, and has long shunned a Syrian Kurdish group that is close to it. Yet recently, the administration has quietly reached out to the group in Syria.

The administration came to the defense of Erbil for a range of reasons, said U.S. and Kurdish officials. It already saw the Peshmerga as trusted allies in a volatile region. The Peshmerga—literally, “those who face death”—aren’t a standing army but a collection of militias loyal to political factions in the Kurdish-dominated part of northern Iraq.

The president’s most immediate concern, U.S. officials said, was to protect U.S. personnel in the oil-rich area, which is home to billions of dollars of U.S. investment. He also authorized strikes to protect the region’s Yazidi religious minority from potential slaughter by Islamic State fighters.

“The U.S. is betting big on the Kurds,” said Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank. “Their fates in this theater have become intertwined.”

American ties to the Kurds, who live in parts of Iran, Turkey and Syria as well as Iraq, weren’t always close. In the 1970s, the U.S. stood by while Iraqi and Iranian forces teamed up to crush Kurdish forces.

But over succeeding decades, enduring bonds between U.S. and Peshmerga commanders formed, when the U.S. intervened to protect the Kurds against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s and again after its 2003 invasion to topple the dictator. Youthful U.S. military officers who later rose to high posts in the White House, Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency came away from encounters impressed with “how brave the Peshmerga were,” recalled a veteran U.S. diplomat, James Jeffrey.

In 2003, then-Maj. Gen. David Petraeus’s 101st Airborne Division took responsibility for security in Iraq’s three Kurdish provinces and formed a strong bond with Mr. Barzani, said a former senior U.S. officer. Every month or so, the two met for lunch in a field tent on a Kurdish mountain to discuss military strategy and battles Mr. Barzani had fought against Mr. Hussein’s forces. The Army division began building the region’s two largest landing strips—now used in part for arms deliveries and U.S.-Kurdish joint collection of intelligence on the jihadists.

p. 15

Mr. Barzani also forged ties to a generation of U.S. diplomats. Among other things, he went hiking with Mr. Jeffrey, a former ambassador both to Iraq and Turkey.

U.S.-Kurdish tensions flared early in Mr. Obama’s tenure. Kurdish leaders weren’t pleased by the administration’s embrace of Nouri al-Maliki, the Shiite Muslim prime minister who led Iraq for years until the U.S. and others soured on him this summer and he left under pressure. Obama administration officials, for their part, were alarmed by what they saw as efforts by Kurdish leaders to put northern Iraq on a path to independence.

In deciding which Kurdish groups the U.S. would work with, the U.S. has long taken cues from Turkey. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally has spent decades fighting the PKK, formally the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The U.S. wouldn’t work with it.

The U.S. had also kept at arm’s length a Kurdish force inside Syria called the Democratic Union Party. It is close to the PKK but says it is independent. Although the group has fought jihadist groups inside Syria for years, last year it was unable to get a U.S. visa for its leader, Saleh Muslim, to visit Washington to discuss cooperation.

The U.S. strategy began to shift in June, when jihadist fighters from what was then known only as ISIS or ISIL marched across northern Iraq and took the cities of Samarra, Mosul and Tikrit. Iraqi government forces largely melted away.

The U.S. military’s Central Command prepared options to build up the Peshmerga defenders of Kurdistan, an island of stability in northern Iraq.

Mr. Barzani’s chief of staff, Fuad Hussein, and Falah Bakir, the top diplomat for the semiautonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, met at the White House in early July with officials including Mr. Biden, a leading U.S. voice on Iraq policy. The Kurds said Mr. Barzani would support a push the U.S. was making for an Iraqi government more inclusive than Mr. Maliki’s. But if that effort failed, said a longtime adviser to the Kurdistan Regional Government, Mr. Barzani would hold a referendum on independence, a threat to break Iraq apart.

A week into August, the equation changed. Islamic State fighters stormed into Iraqi towns directly abutting Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga, heavily outgunned, retreated. Kurdistan suddenly had a 960-kilometer front line with the jihadist group.

Kurdish officials continually updated their American counterparts, including State Department official Brett McGurk and Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of Central Command. “We were talking to the Americans every hour,” said Mr. Hussein.

Mr. Barzani mobilized the Peshmerga in preparation to take the fight to the jihadists. Islamic State didn’t wait. On Aug. 7, hundreds of its fighters smashed through Kurdish defenses at the towns of Makhmour and Gwair, opening a direct route into Erbil.

“We didn’t sleep,” Mr. Hussein said. “They were 30 minutes from Erbil.”

Most Western oil and other companies in Erbil had by this time evacuated foreign workers. Many expatriates still present followed residents fleeing north.

Kurdish officials redeployed elite Peshmerga units from nearby cities. They also called in a controversial force: guerrillas from the PKK—the group on U.S. and Turkish terrorist-organization lists—and from the Democratic Union Party in Syria, who are commonly known by the initials PYD.

“They took up position in what we call ‘the suicide area,’ which is the first line of defense. They made a real difference,” said Koshan Gaff, a Peshmerga fighter. They also punched through Islamic State lines to form a corridor that helped save members of the Yazidi minority trapped on a mountainside.

Away from the chaotic front lines, U.S. intelligence officers in Erbil echoed Mr. Barzani’s calls for an emergency ammunition resupply, U.S. officials said, and the White House tapped the CIA to launch a covert resupply mission. The administration was having trouble getting the Iraqi government to let the Pentagon directly rearm the Kurds, U.S. officials added, because Iraqi leaders in Baghdad wanted supplies to go through them to avoid fueling Kurdish efforts to gain greater autonomy.

While Mr. Barzani and his aides worked the phones, lobbyists for the Kurds and for U.S. companies roamed Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to press the administration to step up support. Some did so, concerned about the Kurds and U.S. investments.

Mr. Biden had kept in touch with Mr. Barzani since meeting him in 2002 while still a senator. “It’s a very friendly relationship,” said Mr. Hussein. “They don’t just talk about politics, they talk about their grandchildren.” In recent years, Mr. Biden frequently made requests of the Kurdish leader and was used to hearing him ask for help on various matters.

This time was different, U.S. officials said. With darkness falling in Erbil on Aug. 7, Mr. Barzani’s tone grew more urgent as Islamic State moved an artillery piece close enough to reach the city’s suburbs. Mr. Biden sought details about where Peshmerga forces were fighting or fleeing, to help the U.S. determine the urgency and how to respond, said U.S. and Kurdish officials.

Mr. Obama had just decided to use airstrikes to protect the Yazidis. Shortly after the Biden-Barzani call he also directed action to protect Erbil, citing, in particular, concerns about American personnel in the city, according to U.S. officials.

Aides said Mr. Obama had been worried about launching strikes in heavily populated areas. Pentagon planners said Islamic State positions were in relatively open areas near Erbil, minimizing the risk.

At 4:30 a.m. in Erbil on Aug. 8, Mr. Barzani and his advisers watched live TV coverage of Mr. Obama’s announcement that the U.S. would strike jihadists approaching the Kurdish capital.

Later that day, U.S. F/A-18 fighter jets began pounding jihadist positions with 500pound laser-guided bombs, the first hitting the artillery piece in range of Erbil suburbs. The combination of bombing runs, replenished ammunition and help for Peshmerga from guerrillas of the PKK and the group in Syria changed fortunes on the ground. The jihadists were pushed out of the towns on the road to Erbil and then from the Mosul Dam, which they had seized earlier.

The Kurds have since received some light weapons, such as rifles, mostly through European countries, in deliveries coordinated with the U.S. The Kurdistan Regional Government has sent the U.S. a list of gear it wants, including heavier weapons such as anti-artillery systems, in a request that is pending.

The airstrikes and other aid have given the Kurds time to regroup. But the scrambled political situation poses tricky new questions about the road ahead.

One is to what extent the U.S. might work with the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, the Kurdish fighting group in Syria that has long confronted jihadists is Syria but is close to the terrorist-designated PKK.

A representative of the PYD in France, Khaled Issa, met in recent months with American officials to discuss possible military cooperation. The U.S., which notes that it doesn’t have formal relations with the PYD, has informed Turkey of the informal discussions.

Mr. Barzani, who likewise previously kept his distance from the Syrian Kurdish fighters, also has started cooperating more closely with them, according to the Kurdistan Regional Government adviser. It is an example of how the Islamic State threat has drawn disparate Kurdish groups closer.

Some U.S. lawmakers are pressing the administration to arm the Kurds in Syria. A U.S. official said Turkey may be close to cutting a deal with the PKK guerrillas, which could increase the U.S.’s room to maneuver. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said reaching a peace deal was a top priority.

Erbil’s main airport has become a center of the battle against Islamic State. During the Iraq war, the U.S. established its own facility there, including private taxiways and hangars with communications gear. Now, Kurdish officials say the facility is rapidly being expanded, reflecting Washington’s commitment to what has become a joint U.S.-Kurdish campaign against the jihadists.

David Gauthier-Villars contributed to this article.

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