WASHINGTON — The U.S. may consider halting its massive train-and-equip program for Iraqi forces if the Iraqi military continues its offensive against Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq, a defense official said Monday.
Over the weekend U.S.-equipped Iraqi forces entered Kirkuk, an oil-rich, Kurdish-controlled city, in response to the Kurdish region’s independence vote on Sept. 25. Several exchanges of gunfire were reported Monday as Iraqi forces took over Kurdish-controlled buildings and facilities in Kirkuk.
The U.S.-led task force in command of operations in Iraq and Syria issued a statement Monday that urged all sides to avoid escalations, but downplayed the movement of Iraqi military vehicles into Kirkuk as “coordinated movements, not attacks,” and called the predawn gunfire “a misunderstanding and not deliberate.”
The Iraqi Embassy in Washington also issued a statement saying Baghdad’s deployment of federal security forces in Kirkuk “is a legal and constitutional measure taken in coordination with the local security forces.”
Baghdad said it is “avoiding any clashes in restoring federal authority and strives to prevent the outbreak of violence” and warned of “ill-intentions by party militias outside the Kirkuk security structure.”
Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Rob Manning said no U.S. forces were involved in the operation in Kirkuk, however U.S. advisers were “in the vicinity,” as they have been for months, to assist Iraq’s fight against the Islamic State.
Manning said U.S. commanders in Iraq are working with both Iraqi and Kurdish forces to try to get to return to a dialogue. However if Iraqi forces do not cease the offensive, one possibility could be ceasing the equipment and training support the U.S. has provided.
“I’m not going to speculate on that, but I’ll tell you we’re looking at all options,” Manning said.
There are currently more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, including U.S. forces who are advising and assisting the Iraqi military’s forward-deployed operational units. Those U.S. forces, along with U.S. air support and intelligence, was key to the defeat of the Islamic State in Mosul earlier this year.
U.S. arms sales to Iraq top $26 billion since Sept. 11, 2001 through 2015, according to data compiled by the Security Assistance Monitor, a program of the Center for International Policy. Some $4.8 billion was announced in 2016 and 2017.
U.S. Sen. John McCain warned of “severe consequences” if U.S.-supplied military equipment that was intended to fight the Islamic State is misused by the Iraqi military in clashes between Iraqi forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga in northern Iraq.
“The United States provided equipment and training to the Government of Iraq to fight ISIS and secure itself from external threats—not to attack elements of one of its own regional governments, which is a longstanding and valuable partner of the United States,” McCain, R-Ariz., and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee said in a statement.
“Make no mistake, there will be severe consequences if we continue to see American equipment misused in this way.”
McCain was “especially concerned” by reports that Iranian and Iranian-backed militias are part of the assault.
There have been unconfirmed rumors and media reports that Iranian forces are using M1 Abrams tanks the U.S. supplied to Baghdad against Kurdish Peshmerga forces in Kirkuk.
Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesperson for the U.S.-led task force, said the U.S. military “can only provide equipment to vetted groups” that have adhered to various human rights principles and standards. But, he said: “There have been questions about how non-vetted groups” have obtained U.S. military hardware.
The Iraqi government had 140 U.S. M1 Abrams tanks before ISIS took most of northern Iraq in 2014. It is unclear how many of those tanks were captured by ISIS and other forces. A January 2015 video showed an M1 Abrams tank in Iraq flying the Hezbollah flag. Iraqi officials said the tank was part of an Iraqi military convoy that was flying the flag in solidarity with Shiite militia.
A lot of U.S. military equipment ended up in the hands of various groups after ISIS took over large swaths of territory in Iraq, Dillon said. Dillon said he couldn’t speak for the Iraqi government about whether they had given U.S. military hardware to Iranian-backed militias.
Rachel Stohl, of the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank, said there is a calculated risk when the U.S. supplies arms to an ally in a counterterrorism fight.
“It’s such a complicated situation. Because when you give weapons to a country or group, you can’t control how they chose to use to use them. We may have given weapons for a [counter-terror] fight, but if there is another armed conflict, they will likely use them in those conditions,” Stohl said.
“Though there are end-use agreements, the consequences for violating them would be future-oriented – in the future we wouldn’t sell them something,” she said.
Jeff Schogol in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.
Tara Copp is the Pentagon Bureau Chief for Military Times and author of the award-winning military nonfiction "The Warbird: Three Heroes. Two Wars. One Story."
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.