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In northern Iraq, ethnic Kurdish forces are battling fighters from the Islamic State. The Kurds are longtime allies of the U.S., and they are receiving help from U.S. airstrikes, but they say they also need new weapons. And Kurdish commanders complain that shipments of arms from the U.S. and elsewhere are being held up because the Arab government in Baghdad wants to control the flow of weapons into the region. NPR's Peter Kenyon reports from Erbil in northern Iraq.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: From a hilltop overlooking the abandoned minority Yazidi village of Bashika, a Kurdish Peshmerga commander points beyond the village to the city of Mosul, where Islamic State units remain in control. Esmat Rajab says he's eager for the day the Peshmerga rids the city of the fighters he refers to as ISIS, once badly needed weapons reach the front lines.
ESMAT RAJAB: (Through translator) We have heard weapons are coming, but so far we haven't seen any. As you know, the Iraqi Ministry of Defense doesn't give us any weapons. And that just encourages ISIS to attack us.
KENYON: The Pentagon says Baghdad is shipping some equipment and assistance to the Kurds, but the U.S. is exploring other options. In her Erbil, Peshmerga spokesman, Helgurd Ali, says morale is strong since the Peshmerga retook the Mosul Dam from the Islamists. But he's frustrated at Baghdad's attitude towards arming the Kurds.
HELGURD ALI: (Through translator) In the face of this crisis, if Baghdad still says no to international weapons, then let them send us the weapons. We waited for eight years, they didn't send anything. Not one belt of ammunition. We can't trust Baghdad, and that's why we have to turn to the international community.
KENYON: But the international community has been reluctant to ignore Baghdad's objections and arm the Kurds directly. Although Kurdish officials say some weapons are beginning to arrive via Erbil Airport. Ali says they need heavier weapons, including something strong enough to pierce the armor on the U.S.-made vehicles the Islamists stole from the Iraqi army.
On the face of it, Baghdad's reluctance to weapons flowing directly to the Peshmerga, widely considered the most able-fighting force in Iraq at the moment, seems counterproductive if not disastrous. But analysts say it's not that simple.
Toby Dodge, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics says yes, Baghdad politics are, in his words, in a hell of a mess. But he says, if you want to understand why the central government doesn't want to see the Kurdish Regional Government, or KRG, get a big weapons boost for its military, just look at how amid the confusion after Mosul fell to ISIS fighters in June, the Peshmerga swept into the city of Kirkuk - oil-rich territory long contested by the Kurds and the central government.
TOBY DODGE: After June 10, the Peshmerga expanded its own territory by 40 percent. That's what's worrying Baghdad, I think. So you would then say that the KRG has expanded its territory by 40 percent by force of arms. And that will - once ISIS has been defeated, that will become a profound problem going forward for all parties concerned - the Kurds as well as the government in Baghdad.
KENYON: None of which makes a viable, sustainable solution any easier to find. Dodge says the mistakes date back as least as far as the Bush administration, which rebuilt the Iraqi army, more to police the domestic population than to defend borders or execute military offensives. The mistakes were compounded by outgoing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
DODGE: If you add to that what Maliki did from 2006 until recently, in effect, what he did was coup-proof the army by breaking the chain of command, rubbishing its esprit de corps, and placing men loyal to him at the senior ranks, which explains along with a profound corruption, why the Iraqi army collapsed so quickly in Mosul.
KENYON: The Kurdish forces, at one-fifth the size of the Iraqi army, can be built up somewhat, but aren't well-suited to fighting such a highly mobile opportunistic adversary, especially outside their own Northern Territory. What's needed, says Dodge, is a new government in Baghdad that can undo the damage wrought by Maliki.
DODGE: And refocused on restructuring the Iraqi Army to make it the fighting force that can defend the territory of Iraq for all of Iraq's citizens, not just for its ex-Prime Minister.
KENYON: In other words, essentially what American forces thought they were well on the way to doing before they pulled out of Iraq. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Erbil.
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