BAGHDAD/MURSITPINAR, TURKEY —
Iraq said it would supply semiautonomous Kurdish region with its needs for heavy weapons to help Kurdish fighters battling militants of the Islamic State group.
The arming of Kurdish forces is a contentious issue because some Iraqi politicians suspect Kurdish leaders have aspirations to break away from the central government completely.
Iraqi government has been reluctant to give arms directly to the Kurds because of a desire to see Iraq remain a unified state and a hesitancy to do anything that might bolster Kurdish ambitions for autonomy.
“The peshmerga are part of the Iraqi defense system and our support is with them. What the army has is for the peshmerga, and what is required from the army is required from the peshmerga,” Defense Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said on Tuesday.
Weapons for peshmerga
The Baghdad central government will also supply peshmerga fighters with heavy weapons when it gets the arms it contracted on, Obeidi added.
“When we have weapons, God willing, they will have their share like other Iraqi troops,” Obeidi said after a tour of a peshmerga training center in the Kurdish city of Irbil.
Outgunned and untested for years, the Kurds failed their first major test on the battlefield last June, when Islamic State militants overran their positions in northwestern Iraq, prompting airstrikes by the United States.
Since then, at least eight countries have begun arming the Kurds, whose Soviet-era weaponry proved ineffective against insurgents flush with military hardware plundered from the Iraqi army after it abandoned its posts in June.
The Islamic State group was better equipped with weapons plundered from a massive arsenal of U.S. equipment surrendered by the Iraqi army when it collapsed in the north in June. The plunder includes long-range artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, rocket launchers and sniper rifles, as well as tons of ammunition. They were also flush with cash.
The U.S. government has recently begun supplying arms to the Kurds directly, responding to their pleas for military hardware to match the Islamic State group's.
The threat has also spurred cooperation between the region and the federal government in Baghdad, which has withheld arms and salaries from the peshmerga for years due to disputes over oil and budgets.
Britain has also sent just 40 machine guns to Iraq's Kurds and a small group of soldiers to teach fighters how to fire them.
Kurds say they need much heavier weapons, such as tanks and attack helicopters, to take on Islamic State fighters.
More than 100 instructors from Germany, Canada, Australia and United States are now on the ground in Iraqi Kurdistan, teaching the region's peshmerga forces how to use the new weapons.
Fighting in Kobani
In Kobani on Monday, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters and moderate Syrian rebels bombarded Islamic State positions, but it was unclear if their arrival would turn the tide in the battle for the besieged Syrian border town.
Kobani has become a symbolic test of the U.S.-led coalition's ability to halt the advance of the Islamic State group, which has poured weapons and fighters into its assault of the town that has lasted more than a month.
The battle has deflected attention from significant gains elsewhere in Syria by the Islamic State group, which has seized two gas fields within a week from President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the center of the country.
In Iraq, the group has executed more than 300 members of a Sunni tribe that dared oppose it last week, after seizing the tribe's village in the Euphrates valley west of Baghdad. On Monday a member of the tribe said another 36 members had been executed in the provincial capital Anbar.
For now, the eyes of the world have been on Kobani, where weeks of fighting have taken place within full view of the Turkish border, causing outrage among Kurds in Turkey who blamed their government for doing too little to help defend the town.
The arrival in Kobani of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and additional Syrian Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters in recent days has escalated efforts to defend the town after weeks of U.S.-led air strikes slowed but did not reverse the Islamists' advance.
White smoke billowed into the sky as peshmerga and FSA fighters appeared to combine forces, raining cannon and mortar fire down on Islamic State positions to the west of Kobani, a Reuters witness said.
The U.S. military said it has launched another 14 aerial attacks in the last day on Islamic State positions, five in Syria and nine in Iraq. The Syrian attacks centered on Kobani. The U.S. Central Command said the strikes in Iraq were near Baiji, Fallujah and Rutba.
IS 'remains a concern'
In Washington, the chief of the U.S. European Command, Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said the Islamic State "remains a concern" for the U.S., in part because of the number of foreigners who are fighting with the Islamic State. He said the fear is about radicalized fighters who return home to carry out "lone wolf" attacks.
An estimated 150 Iraqi Kurdish fighters crossed into Kobani with arms and ammunition from Turkey late on Friday, the first time Ankara has allowed reinforcements to reach the town.
"(Their) heavy weapons have been a key reinforcement for us. At the moment they're mostly fighting on the western front, there's also FSA there too," said Meryem Kobane, a commander with the YPG, the main Syrian Kurdish armed group in Kobani.
She said fierce fighting was also continuing in eastern and southern parts of the city.
The peshmerga, the official security forces of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, have deployed behind Syrian Kurdish forces and are supporting them with artillery and mortar fire, said Ersin Caksu, a journalist inside Kobani.
The fiercest fighting was taking place in the south and east, areas where the reinforcements were not deployed, he said.
Despite weeks of airstrikes, Islamic State has continued to inflict heavy losses on Kobani's defenders. Late last week hospital sources in Turkey reported a jump in the number of dead and wounded Kurdish fighters being brought across the frontier.