Iraqi Kurds, who field one of the most effective ground forces fighting Islamic State (IS) militants, are urgently asking America to help ease their budget crisis made worse by slumping oil prices and 1.8 million people who have fled fighting in Iraq and Syria.
Representatives from the Kurds’ semi-autonomous region of northern Iraq said without help from the US or its allies the Kurds’ fighting force, known as the peshmerga, would be hampered in their fight against IS.
“Sustaining this costly war against Isis, caring for 1.8 million refugees and displaced persons with the current drop in oil prices are not things that we can sustain,” Falah Mustafa Bakir, who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government’s foreign relations department, said.
He said the peshmerga had not been paid since August.
Mr Bakir, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s representative to the United States, and others are meeting US officials at the White House, Pentagon, state department and Congress.
Mr Bakir said he was asking the Pentagon to help cover the expenses of Kurdish fighters, who with the backing of US-led air strikes have retaken significant territory from IS in northern Iraq.
It costs about two billion dollars (£1.4bn) a year to pay their essential expenses and salaries, he said.
The Kurds, who have their own government in Iraq’s semi-autonomous north, hope the state department or United States Agency for International Development (USAID) could offer Kurdistan money to provide assistance to the refugees and Iraqis displaced by the war, which the World Bank has estimated to cost 1.4 billion dollars (£972m).
“Nobody has said yes, but they are sympathetic,” Mr Bakir said. “They are taking this issue seriously, trying to see how and what kind of help they will be able to offer.”
Colonel Steven Warren, chief spokesman for the US military in Baghdad, said that the US-led coalition allocated more than 2.3 billion dollars (£1.6bn) to Iraq to train and equip more than
16,000 Iraqi security forces and provide equipment to the peshmerga.
In a visit to Kurdistan last month, US defence secretary Ash Carter said the next major shipment to the Kurds, planned for late February and early March, will include two brigades’ worth of equipment to help recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul from IS.
“Our equipment is going to make that possible,” he said.
Denise Natali, an expert on Iraq at the National Defence University, said the Kurds needed to be applauded for fighting IS and caring for hundreds of thousands of refugees, but internal reforms were needed because fiscal mismanagement, corruption and government bureaucracy were also at the root of some of Kurdistan’s financial woes.
“Some of this is their own doing,” she said, adding that some financial problems predate the fight against IS. “They made billions of dollars. Where did all the money go?”
In December 2014, the Iraqi government reached a deal with the Kurds to exchange oil from the autonomous region for a nearly-20% share of the national budget. The agreement stipulated that the
Kurdish government would release 550,000 barrels of oil every day to the Iraqi oil ministry.
In exchange, the Kurds were to receive the 17% share of the national budget allocated to their region, plus instalments of as much as one billion dollars to boost the capabilities of peshmerga fighters battling IS.
Mr Bakir said that earlier in 2014, Baghdad cut the stake earmarked for the Kurdish region. The Iraqi government said it reduced the money after the Kurds began transporting oil from fields inside the autonomous zone directly to Turkey.