WASHINGTON — The leader of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq said Friday that he has not backtracked on his request for the U.S. to bypass Baghdad and directly supply weapons to his forces, but said he wouldn't interfere in a disagreement over the issue between Congress and the White House.
Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Regional Government of Iraq, said the Obama administration this week reassured him that the Kurdish military, known as the peshmerga, would get the weaponry it needs. The peshmerga has been a major force in repelling the Islamic State group's onslaught in recent months, but it complains it is not getting enough weapons from the Iraq federal government in Baghdad.
Speaking through an interpreter, Barzani told a group of reporters that despite pledges from Baghdad made several years ago, his forces did not receive "a bullet or a piece" of weaponry from Baghdad.
The House Armed Services Committee last week supported the authorization of the president's request of $715 million for security assistance to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State militants, but stipulated that 25 percent of the funds be given directly to Kurdish and Sunni forces involved in the fight. That drew opposition from both Obama and — ironically — an influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, an opponent of the U.S. military between 2003 and 2011.
The cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, threatened to attack American interests if the U.S. sends arms directly to Sunni and Kurdish fighters. The Iraqi government in Baghdad also rejected the provision. It said the move would only foster more division in the region at a time when Iraq is trying to reconcile factions in the country, especially in response to the threat from IS.
"I would like to reiterate: If it were up to us, we would like to get them directly," Barzani said, thanking U.S. lawmakers for crafting the legislation. "We have not backed down from our position. We insist that the weapons get to the hands of the peshmerga.
"We have been given assurances from the U.S. administration that they care about this issue ... and they assured us that the peshmerga will receive the necessary weapons."
Barzani also said the Kurds still want to have a referendum on becoming independent from the rest of Iraq, but said he won't push it while the nation is embroiled in a fight against IS militants.