by Isra’ al-Rubai’i
Mon Aug 4, 2014
(Reuters) – Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki ordered his air force for the first time to back Kurdish forces against Islamic State fighters after the Sunni militants made another dramatic push through the north, state television reported on Monday.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters, who cut their teeth fighting Saddam Hussein’s troops, were regarded as one of the few forces capable of standing up to the Sunni insurgents who faced almost no opposition from Maliki’s U.S.-trained army during their lightning advance through the north in June.
Then on Sunday the Islamic State inflicted a humiliating defeat on the Kurds with a rapid advance through three towns to reach the Mosul Dam, acquiring a fifth oil field to fund its operations along the way.
State television and witnesses said that the Islamic State had seized Iraq’s biggest dam. Kurdish peshmerga officials said they have pushed militants from the dam area and were in control of it. This could not be immediately confirmed.
Despite predictions from Kurdish commanders that their forces would launch a successful counter-offensive, one senior Kurdish official urged the United States to step in and provide weapons “for the sake of fighting terrorism”.
Maliki has been at odds with the Kurds over budgets, oil and land, and tensions deepened after the Islamic State seized control of large swathes of land in the north and west of OPEC member Iraq.
In July, the Kurdish political bloc ended all participation in Iraq’s national government in protest over Maliki’s accusation that Kurds were allowing terrorists to stay in Arbil, the capital of their semi-autonomous region known as Kurdistan.
Opponents accuse Maliki of being an authoritarian ruler with a sectarian agenda whose alienation of Sunnis fueled the insurgency. Currently ruling in a caretaker capacity after an inconclusive election in April, he has defied calls by Sunnis, Kurds and even some fellow Shi’ites to step aside to make room for a less polarizing figure.
Maliki seems to have put aside his hostility with the Kurds for now to try to prevent the Islamic State, which has threatened to march on Baghdad, from making further gains.
“The general commander of the armed forces has ordered the air force command to provide backup for the Kurdish peshmerga forces against the terrorist gangs of the Islamic State,” state television quoted Maliki’s military spokesman Qassim Atta as saying.
A senior Kurdish official said the Kurds had been overstretched and the Islamic State had overwhelming firepower.
“The Islamic State had also been intimidating people by carrying out beheadings,” he said.
After thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled their initial advance in June, the group then known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized tanks, armored personnel carriers, anti-aircraft guns, mortars, artillery and vehicles.
“It is a very dangerous situation for the region. Something needs to be done soon,” said the senior Kurdish official, asking not to be identified.
Despite the odds, Kurdish commanders were talking tough.
One colonel said the Kurdish withdrawal was tactical and forecast that several Kurdish brigades would take back all territory lost on Sunday and even win back Mosul, Iraq’s biggest northern city which is firmly in the hands of the Islamic State.
“We will attack them until they are completely destroyed we will never show any mercy,” he told Reuters. “We have given them enough chances and we will even take Mosul back. I believe within the next 48-72 hours it will be over.”
(Writing by Michael Georgy; Editing by Peter Graff)