The US is conducting air strikes and supplies weapons to help outgunned Iraqi Kurds fight off the offensive of Islamist militants. The Kurds are battling against extremists armed with American arms and nurtured thanks to America’s policies.
The airstrikes aimed at positions of the militants from the Islamic State, formerly known as ISIS or ISIL, in northern Iraq are not expected to seriously undermine their strength, US generals say.
“We assess that US airstrikes in northern Iraq have slowed ISIL's operational tempo and temporarily disrupted their advances toward the province of Erbil,” said Army Lt. Gen. William Mayville, the Joint Chiefs of Staff director of operations.
He added that the fundamental Islamist group “remains focused on securing and gaining additional territory throughout Iraq and will sustain its attacks against Iraqi and Kurdish security forces and their positions, as well as target[ing] Yazidis, Christians and other minorities.”
“I in no way want to suggest that we have effectively contained or that we are somehow breaking the momentum of the threat posed by ISIS,” Mayville added.
Rather than defeating the IS militants, the airstrikes are meant to give a breathing space to the Kurdish Peshmerga militia, the general said, which is the only force in northern Iraq strong enough to confront the Islamists. In addition to bombing the militants, Washington has agreed to directly arm the Kurds, the media reported on Monday, overturning Washington’s longstanding policy of funneling all arms supplies to Iraq through the government in Baghdad.
According to Kurdish officials, the weapons would be supplied through the CIA and would include Russian-made small arms, such as Kalashnikov rifles and mortars. However, this could leave the Peshmerga at a serious disadvantage, as the Islamic State fighters are much better armed, having seized hundreds of millions of dollars-worth of heavy American weapons from the fleeing Iraqi army.
“The jihadist forces in Iraq are probably the strongest jihadist force in the region and in the world,” Walid Phares, a leading anti-terrorism expert and advisor, told RT. “They are equipped with advanced American weapons. And that’s how they were able to ethnic-cleanse the minorities from many areas south of Kurdistan. And now they are attacking Kurdistan.”
Experts say it is probably only a matter of time before IS finds a way to fully benefit from having US-made tanks and helicopters the way it currently benefits from US-made artillery pieces shelling the Kurd troops.
The irony of the US having to bomb their own hardware arguably matches that of the US inadvertently contributing to the rise of IS, which grew from a relatively ordinary branch of Al-Qaeda to one of the best-armed and best-funded terrorist groups in the world.
The Islamic State’s lightning offensive in June, which took by surprise – including the US and Iraqi governments alike – would have been unlikely if the militants hadn’t built themselves a strong base in neighboring Syria. They managed to do this exploiting the weakness of the Syrian government bogged down by years of fighting against various rebel factions, some of them vocally supported by the US and its allies.
“The US allocated hundreds of millions of dollars to support, fund and train armed opposition groups in Syria,” political activist Raed Jarrar told RT. “Definitely foreign interventions and foreign agendas in the region opened the door wide for the extremist groups.”
IS, originally an Iraq-based organization, carved out a piece of eastern Syria thanks to ruthlessness on the ground, funding from private sponsors in countries suc h as Kuwait and Qatar, and an abundance of weapons smuggled into Syria, including those reportedly delivered to rebel groups with the help of the CIA and Turkey.
After securing their base, they invaded Iraq in a bid to create a caliphate straddling both countries.
Direct arming of Peshmerga forces by the US is a benchmark for Iraqi Kurdistan, a region that has been largely autonomous from Baghdad for years, with its own government, armed forces and may other attributes of a sovereign state.
The region is also financially independent, controlling about 10 percent of Iraqi oil production. Iraqi Kurdistan produced some 360,000 barrels per day in June, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Large western oil companies such as ExxonMobil, Total and Chevron are involved in the production, which certainly gives the US another incentive for supporting Kurdistan.
“What basically exists in Iraqi Kurdistan is a US protectorate. That’s where the oil is under US control,” political analyst William Dores told RT.
Anti-war activist Brian Becker agrees: “We can see that the Islamic State has carried out executions, mass executions in Syria and in other parts of Iraq. That by itself did not generate a US military response but when they threatened Erbil, which is the center of Kurdish regional government… then of course it becomes an imperative for the US to try to carry out military strikes.”
Kurdish oil is an attractive target for the Islamists as well. Battling Peshmerga, the IS took over seven oil fields and two refineries in northern Iraq, including in Kurdistan. The crude itself has now reportedly been sold, giving the militants additional cash.
“The militants simply sell the existing oil in the pipelines at much lower prices,” Bewar Khinsi, of the Kurdistan Protection Agency, told Kurdish news agency Rudaw last week. “They sell roughly 40 tankers, or 10,000 barrels of oil, with net revenues of $12,000.”
And while the UN threatens to impose sanctions against anyone caught buying crude from the IS, the militants continue their territorial gains in Iraq.