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Air support for Kurds in Iraq

August 4, 2014

Iraq's air force will provide support for Kurdish forces battling Islamist militants in the north of the country. Kurds suffered heavy weekend losses to fighters from the Islamic State organization, losing two towns.

Kurdish peshmerga soldiers take up defensive positions in Iraq
Image: picture-alliance/Omar Alkalout

Baghdad agreed on Monday to provide support for Kurdish fighters seeking to stop the latest advance from the Islamic State (IS) group, formerly known as ISIS.

"The commander in chief of the armed forces has issued orders to the leadership of the air force and the army's aviation units to provide air support to [Kurdish] peshmerga forces," Iraqi military spokesman Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta said in a statement.

The aerial support comes despite months of difficult relations between the central Iraqi government in Baghdad and the partially autonomous Kurdish authority in the north. The Kurdish political bloc in Iraq pulled out of the country's national government in July in protest, after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Kurds were allowing IS fighters to stay in Arbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.

Kurdish troops lost control of the towns of Sinjar and Zumar over the weekend, retreating as Islamic State fighters advanced and claimed a fifth oil field to help fund their operations.

IS fighters have claimed large portions of territory in the west and north of Iraq in recent weeks, putting severe pressure on the government in Baghdad. Until Sunday, Kurdish forces were among the few in Iraq to offer genuine resistance against IS, which faced scant opposition from the Iraqi government's security forces.

Kurds pledge counter-offensive

The latest IS offensive focused on Iraqi Kurdistan, with Kurdish peshmerga fighters withdrawing from the towns of Sinjar and Zumar over the weekend. Kurdish leaders said on Monday that they were planning a counter-offensive against IS forces, with the pledge of air support following soon after from Baghdad.

One peshmerga colonel said on Iraqi state television that the withdrawal had been tactical, predicting that Kurdish brigades would reclaim the territory lost on Sunday, and even reclaim Mosul, Iraq's second-most populous city.

"We will attack them until they are completely destroyed, we will never show any mercy," the general said. "We have given them enough chance and we will even take Mosul back. I believe within the next 48-72 hours it will be over."

Across the border to the north, in predominantly Kurdish southern Turkey, the Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) issued a statement on its website calling for all Kurds to "rise up against the attack on Kurds in Sinjar [northern Iraq]." The PKK has fought a 30-year insurgency against Turkish forces, seeking independence from Ankara.

According to a UN estimate, more than 500,000 people have been displaced by the violence in Iraq since June, many of them ethnic and religious minorities who fled Mosul. The al Qaeda breakaway group IS also has a strong presence in neighboring Syria.

msh/ksb (AFP, AP, Reuters)