Assessing The Scope And Scale Of American Aid For Kurds In Iraq

Brett McGurk is the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Iraq and Iran. He joins Robert Siegel to explain U.S. policy on Iraq.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

We reached Brett McGurk to talk about U.S. policy in Iraq. McGurk is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. In that position he has worked with Nouri al-Maliki directly, and I asked him whether Maliki would leave office peaceably.

BRETT MCGURK: Well, I know all the Iraqi leaders, really up and down the board. I know Haider al-Abadi quite well. I know Maliki. I know the new president, Fuad Masum. Look, all of these guys are really tough guys from every block - from every persuasion. They're tough people. They come from a tough place, and, you know, they fight things out. What we have said is you can fight it out through the constitutional process and peacefully.

SIEGEL: I'd like you to explain the objective of the U.S. airstrikes against the jihadists who now call themselves the Islamic State. Is it to block their advance until the Iraqi armed forces can regroup, or is it to provide tactical air support to the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga, as they try to retake territory? What's the objective of the airstrikes?

MCGURK: Well, they had two main objectives. And if you go back to the president's speech, he really talked about two of them - first, the objective of breaking the siege around Sinjar Mountain. The second objective was when ISIS launched this really rapid attack - and this was about eight or nine days ago now - across hundreds of kilometers in the Kurdish region, they overwhelmed the Peshmerga defensive lines in a number of areas, and they opened up a front to Erbil. And we're also going to make sure - particularly because we have a number of Americans in harm's way - we're going to make sure that this terrorist group cannot approach the capital of the Kurdistan region.

SIEGEL: Is the U.S. now effectively arming the Peshmerga forces directly, with the central government being just a fig leaf of an old policy?

MCGURK: Well, let me talk about kind of what's happened since this assault happened in the north. The Iraqi government in Baghdad immediately started helping the Kurdish forces with airstrikes and working in coordination with our joint operation centers which we set up in June in Baghdad and in Erbil, and also delivering a substantial amounts of supplies. Some of those supplies are American arms that we have had in Baghdad for the Iraqi security forces which the Iraqi Air Force has delivered to the north. And we have also looked very closely, with the Kurdish forces, for what they need. And we're trying to get them what they need as soon as possible and all in a very coordinated fashion with the Iraqi security forces.

SIEGEL: They say they need mortars and artillery. Will they get that kind of support?

MCGURK: We're working very closely with them - with their commanders and with Iraqi commanders on all these different fronts. So this is really an ongoing process. There are planeloads of supplies landing in Baghdad and Erbil almost every day now.

SIEGEL: But is it fair to say at this point the U.S. is directly arming the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militias, and that the 2003 policy of there being one Iraq that we would only work with is being bent in the interest of this emergency?

MCGURK: I have to say I've been in and out of this issue for some time, and I've been in a lot of high-level policy meetings in a situation room across two administrations. I've never heard the policy called a one Iraq policy. We work with Erbil very closely and with Baghdad very closely. The Kurds are our closest friends in the region. We have long-term ties and long-term stakes in that region, and we have also worked very closely with the Peshmerga forces in terms of getting them certain types of equipment over the years. There's no question that they now face a threat that was not apparent, you know, say, six months ago.

SIEGEL: But I'm not sure which one you're saying, Secretary McGurk. Are you saying that we're not arming the Peshmerga directly or that we always have been arming the Peshmerga directly, it's just more intense right now?

MCGURK: Well, we're supplying them a level of arms now that would not have been necessary six months ago.

SIEGEL: And that's between the U.S. and the Kurds?

MCGURK: Yes.

SIEGEL: Just one last point - it's often said that the Islamic State or ISIS or ISIL or whatever is not just a threat in the region, but it's a threat to us. That its fighters may come back to the United States or to Europe and stage acts of terrorism. Does that mean that the U.S. is prepared to take a leading role and, if need be, get ahead of the Iraqis in fighting against this group, not for their reasons but for our reasons?

MCGURK: Well, this is a really important point, and this is why, you know, Americans should care about what's happening here. In many cases, it's really not about Ira. It is about a significant threat to us, our partners, our interests. This group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is something that we've really never seen before. It has the characteristics of the Taliban in which it's a self-governing entity, but it has many characteristics that are totally opposite to the Taliban. The Taliban kind of accepted foreign fighters in its midst. ISIL embraces them and is swollen with foreign fighters, and frankly, could not have the war-fighting capability that it enjoys without the thousands of foreign fighters and suicide bombers that flock into its ranks. And it would be very easy for the leadership of this group to turn that spigot towards another capital in the region in Europe or, God forbid, here.

SIEGEL: Brett McGurk, thank you very much for talking with us.

MCGURK: Thank you so much for having me.

SIEGEL: Brett McGurk who is Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq and Iran. He spoke to us from the State Department in Washington.

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