BAGHDAD — Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki today ordered Iraq’s air force to support Kurdish forces fighting Sunni extremists in the north, a move that represented a thaw, out of military necessity, in the fraught relations between the central government and Kurdish leaders.
In a short statement, broadcast on state television, Gen. Qassim Atta, Iraq’s chief military spokesman, said, “The general commander of the armed forces, Nouri al-Maliki, has issued an order to the Iraqi air forces to provide air support for the pesh merga against ISIS.”
The order was the first overt effort by Iraqis and Kurds — whose security forces are known as the pesh merga — to work together militarily since Iraq was thrust into the crisis in June when militants with the Islamic State captured Mosul. But there was no sign that it signaled any broader reconciliation between the Shiite-dominated government and the Kurds, who are pushing for independence from Iraq and have been at odds with Baghdad for some time over distribution of the country’s oil revenue.
Instead, the deployment of the Iraqi air force to help the Kurds fight the Islamic State seemed only to reflect the dire situation on the ground, and came just after Kurdish forces were routed by militants from three towns in northern Iraq over the weekend.
Suddenly, with the recent heavy fighting, the Kurds have found themselves playing a major role in a civil war they had sought to avoid. That war has increasingly merged with the civil war in Syria, and over the weekend Syrian Kurdish fighters were said to have joined their brethren on the front lines in Iraq.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a militant Kurdish separatist group in Turkey that for decades has waged an insurgency against the Turkish state, issued a statement calling for its fighters to go to Sinjar, one of three Iraqi towns where the Kurds were pushed out Sunday.
“The treacherous ISIS attacks have been humiliating for the Kurds,” the statement said. “Until the Kurds develop a strong resistance, they will not be able to take back their honor.”
After losing Sinjar, which is dominated by members of the minority Yazidi sect, and two other towns, Kurdish officials vowed to mount a major counteroffensive against the Islamic State. But it was unlikely that Iraqi air support for the Kurds would prove decisive against Islamic State.
For months, Mr. al-Maliki has waged a failed air campaign against Islamic State militants in Anbar province, where at the end of 2013 militants took control of Fallujah and parts of the provincial capital, Ramadi. Using U.S.-supplied Hellfire missiles and sometimes barrel bombs — the crude, indiscriminate weapons that are also used by President Bashar Assad of Syria and have been condemned by the international community — the air campaign has taken a heavy toll on civilians, according to a recent report by Human Rights Watch, without appearing to make any military gains.
Still, Mr. al-Maliki’s support of the Kurds came after weeks in which the two militaries kept an uneasy distance from each other, even as Western officials, arguing that they faced a common enemy in the Islamic State, urged cooperation.
In the frantic days before June 10, the day Mosul fell to the Islamic State, Kurdish intelligence officers were receiving information that large numbers of Islamic State fighters were sweeping into the country from Syria and approaching Mosul. They shared this information with U.S. officials, and both parties — the Kurds and the Americans — continually warned officials in Baghdad about an impending disaster, urging the Iraqis to accept help in Mosul from the Kurds, who were offering to send fighters to shore up the city’s defenses. The Iraqi government refused.
In the weeks after the fall of Mosul, the Kurds, believing that the Islamic State would keep its focus on fighting the Mr. al-Maliki government, thought they could capitalize on the chaos unfolding in the south to consolidate their autonomy and push for independence. They refused calls from Baghdad to cooperate in the fight against the militants.
The dynamic changed in recent days, as the militants advanced north into Kurdish-controlled territory, sending the pesh merga into retreat and forcing tens of thousands more refugees to flee north to more secure Kurdish areas.
The United Nations has warned of a humanitarian disaster unfolding for the Yazidi community, and reports emerged today that the Islamic State, as it had done to the Christian community in Mosul, had ordered Yazidis to convert to Islam or be killed.
In an interview, Mohammed al-Khuzai, an official with the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, said Islamic State had taken more than 100 Yazidi families to the airport at the nearby town of Tal Afar, where it executed the men and is believed to be keeping the women to force them to marry jihadi fighters.
Mohammed al-Dulaimi, a Yazidi from Sinjar, said he had seen families being kidnapped.
“I’ve seen them taking those families,” he said. “They claim they are infidels and they deserve to die.”
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