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Questions loom over Bundeswehr's mission in Iraq

Chase Winter
October 23, 2017

The German army has restarted a training mission in Iraqi Kurdistan after a week pause. But the mission's continuation is in doubt due to conflict between the autonomous Kurdish region and Iraq.

German military training of Kurdish peshmerga  picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hollemann
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Hollemann

Germany's army will continue to ensure that German-supplied weapons will only be used in the fight against the militant "Islamic State" (IS) group in Iraq, a Defense Ministry spokesman said on Monday.

One day prior, the German army announced it had restarted training Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters, despite a political and military conflict between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad.

The Bundeswehr has been training and supplying weapons to the peshmerga for three years to help the Iraqi Kurds beat back IS militants. Peshmerga forces have assured the German government that the weapons supplied were only being used against IS.

"We do not have any reason to doubt that these agreements are being violated on a large scale," the ministry spokesman said in Berlin. He added that it wasn't possible in conflict areas to track the whereabouts of each weapon.

Read moreKirkuk: What you need to know about the Kurdish-Iraqi dispute

Concerns over alleged MILAN missile use

The German army has provided some 32,000 assault rifles and machine guns, as well as the MILAN anti-tank missile, valued at some €90 million ($106 million) since September 2014. Some 150 Bundeswehr troops are in northern Iraq, and peshmerga units have also received training in Germany.

But the training mission was suspended for a week after the central government in Baghdad, backed by Iranian-trained paramilitary groups, moved to reassert control over disputed territories the Kurds have captured since June 2014.

The largely bloodless reassertion of central government control over large swaths of territory, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, came in response to a non-binding Kurdish independence referendum held last month.

Germany, alongside the United States, UN and regional powers Turkey and Iran had warned against the referendum, which Baghdad called illegal.

Karte Infografik Kurden Irak Oktober 2017 ENG

The standoff between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds has turned the Bundeswehr mission into a delicate political issue, raising the prospect that Germany could get caught between two partners.

Highlighting the dangers, Iraq's Joint Operations Command accused the peshmerga this week of using the German-supplied MILAN missile against its forces after the Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed it destroyed several US supplied humvees and two tanks, including a US M1 Abrams tank. The peshmerga denied the allegations that they had used the MILAN missile, according to Kurdish news portal Rudaw. 

The Bundeswehr declined to confirm or deny to Deutsche Welle that the MILAN was used by peshmerga against Iraqi forces, saying that Germany provided the anti-tank missile strictly to defend against IS.

German politics complicates mission

Earlier this week, the German government said it had temporally suspended training peshmerga because it had sought to "always ensure the unity of Iraq."

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters that training was paused "so no wrong signal would be sent." 

An anti-tank missile
The Bundeswehr trained peshmerga and provided weapons to help defend against ISImage: picture-alliance/dpa/K. Schneider/Bundeswehr

The mandate of the training mission lasts until January 31, 2018.

At that time, the cabinet and Bundestag must extend the mandate in order for training to continue.

But the current dispute between the Kurds and Baghdad has cast the future of the mission in doubt at a time when IS has largely been beaten back in Iraq.

It comes as German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in talks to form a "Jamaica" government coalition, so named for the colors of her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), Greens and liberal Free Democrats, after her election victory last month.

Read more: Merkel's coalition talks for next German government: What you need to know

"The meaningfulness of the mission in northern Iraq is absolutely in question, and not only just militarily, but especially politically and legally, because the constitutional status of northern Iraq [Kurdistan] is at stake," Omid Nouripour, a Green party politician and member of the foreign policy and defense committees in the Bundestag, told German public broadcaster ARD on Sunday.  

"Therefore, a withdrawal of the Bundeswehr would be appropriate. At the same time, political capital must be invested to prevent a military conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds. That would only create only one winner: IS," he said.

The head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, the CDU's Norbert Röttgen, also questioned the long-term continuation of the Bundeswehr mission.

He told ARD that the Bundeswehr mandate could be extended another three months until April, but then discussed with the new coalition government.

At that point it is possible that continuing with mission would not be possible, he said.

"It is too early to leap to conclusions that we will simply continue," he said.

He added that IS has largely been defeated and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani committed an historic miscalculation in holding the referendum that turned him into a factor of instability in the region.

cw/cmk (dpa, Reuters)

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