Kurdish president weighs broader role in Islamic State fight

NEAR ZUMAR, Iraq —  Kurdish President Masoud Barzani looks out at the rolling hills beyond the sandbags of a forward command base near the Syrian border.

The sounds of birds singing used to be sounds of explosions and gunfire just a few months ago as Kurdish peshmerga fighters battled the Islamic State group.

“We’ve been through very, very difficult times – now it’s much different,” Barzani, president of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, recently told the PBS NewsHour.

Peshmerga commanders stride through the gravel paths between the pre-fabricated trailers moved here four months ago after IS fighters were driven out near the town of Zumair. On this day, there is good news from the front – the peshmerga have cleared more than 60 square miles near Kirkuk, including part of a road to the northern city of Mosul.

Barzani credits the U.S. and Europe as well as Kurdish forces with helping to roll back the IS advance. But while the air strikes halted IS moves towards the Kurdish capitol, he says Kurdish forces still lack the weapons and military equipment to ensure they can meet any threat.

“There is no political decision yet to give us what we need,” he said.

When entire Iraqi Army divisions collapsed in the face of the IS onslaught last June, the Kurds became the most reliable U.S. military partner in the fight against IS. But the United States is wary of empowering the Kurdish region and further weakening the central government’s authority.

Although relations between Baghdad and Erbil have improved under new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, there is still tension between the two and little coordination. Kurdish forces have focused mostly on areas near their de facto border and in the disputed territories long claimed by both the central and Kurdish governments.

As Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shia militias make their way further into Tikrit and beyond, Kurdish involvement in predominantly Sunni areas remains a major question.

“If there is a program to liberate Mosul or anywhere else close to the Kurdistan region we can study the situation and in principle we have no objections,” said Barzani.

He said he would not rule out sending in Kurdish troops as part of a wider force but said in the primarily Arab city they would have to play a supporting role.

“The situation in those areas is complicated – you can’t tell who is IS and who isn’t,” he said. “They don’t know who they are so it might lead to a lot of innocent killings and peshmerga casualties. We need to establish what role is given to the peshmerga and then we will decide but we will not go into the Sunni areas and fight the Arabs.”

Barzani said he does not share the concern of some countries that Iran, which provides military and financial backing for Shia militias leading the fight in central Iraq, is playing too prominent a role. He said he worries that a prominent militia role after cities are retaken would deepen sectarian tension.

“Whoever will take part and help us attack IS, we will thank them,” he said. “Right now I don’t share that concern if you are asking me about helping to fight and defeat IS. What happens after that we can’t predict.”

Kurdish forces have now taken back large swathes of territory seized by IS, including parts of Sinjar, where more than 100,000 members of the small Yazidi minority fled in June as IS fighters killed hundreds of men and captured several thousand women. But the military gains have come at a cost.

More than 1,100 peshmerga have been killed in the fight. IS is now holding 21 Kurdish fighters it has threatened to behead on the spring holiday of Nawruz on March 21.

Asked about how the Kurdish government can confront such tactics, Barzani becomes visibly upset.

“Of course it is sad to see our peshmerga in the hands of IS. Some got lost and fell into their hands. Some were captured in the fight. It hurts me a great deal personally. We will try our utmost to free them but if that doesn’t materialize we will list them as martyrs and the number of martyrs will increase. It doesn’t mean that we are going to slow down in fighting these terrorists.

“We are holding many of them prisoners but we will not treat them the way they treat our peshmerga,” he said.

Jane Arraf is a PBS NewsHour special correspondent based in the Middle East. Watch her interview with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani on Wednesday’s NewsHour.