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US: Congress wants to give air defence systems to Kurdish fighters in Iraq

Stockpile of US precision-guided munitions in Israel and Abraham Accords are also in focus as US defence spending bill takes shape
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters affiliated with Iran's separatist Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) in the Erbil province of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on 1 December 2022 (AFP)

US lawmakers are looking to get air defence systems into the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq after the region was struck by a series of missile and drone attacks by Iran and Turkey. 

On Wednesday, the House Armed Services Committe passed an amendment by Republican Congressman Don Bacon that would support the transfer of air defence systems to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga. The vote came during a markup of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), an annual piece of legislation that sets the budget for the Pentagon.

Bacon told Middle East Eye the measure had "strong bipartisan support", adding that it “would direct the US administration to prepare and implement a plan of action to train and equip Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces to defend against attacks by Iranian missiles, rockets and unmanned systems”.

The Peshmerga are fighters in Iraqi Kurdistan. They work with the Iraqi security forces and receive arms and financial assistance from the US as part of Washington’s campaign to defeat the Islamic State militant (IS) group.

Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively stable but last year the region witnessed an escalation of violence as both Iran and Turkey launched air strikes against Kurdish groups operating in the area. The Kurdish regional government of Iraq (KRG) allows Iranian Kurdish groups to operate in the region but also maintains ties with Tehran. 

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The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps targeted Kurdish-Iranian armed opposition groups in late 2022, when Tehran was struggling to control mass protests sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman in police custody.

The US condemned the missile and drone attacks at the time, which Washington said "brazenly violated Iraq’s sovereignty". 

The Kurdish Peshmerga already receive about $20m a month in the form of stipends from the US Department of Defence, Jonathan Lord, head of the Middle East security programme at the Center for a New American Security, told MEE. He cautioned that providing air defence systems for the Peshmerga could run up against supply constraints, as US allies jockey for the armaments.

“US air defence systems are in very high demand,” he told MEE. “Ukraine, Gulf states, the KRG - every country or region where Iranian loitering munitions, ballistic missiles, or rockets pose a threat, is a place looking to strengthen its air defence capabilities,” he said.

The war in Ukraine has occupied Washington’s attention, but the Middle East still features prominently in the draft NDAA being hammered out by the House and Senate.

Israel precision-guided munitions

A separate amendment in the House draft NDAA calls for the extension of financial assistance to vetted Syrian groups and partner forces in Iraq to counter IS.

The US combat mission in Iraq ended in December 2021, but roughly 2,500 troops are in the country - mainly in the north and Baghdad - serving in an advise and assist capacity via an agreement with the government of Iraq.

Around 900 US troops are stationed in northeast Syria working alongside Kurdish forces. The official justification for the US presence is the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force, which Congress passed after the 11 September attacks to combat the militant group al-Qaeda.

'US air defence systems are in very high demand'

- Jonathan Lord, CNAS

The US presence in Syria has become a back-burner issue, but with few American casualties and Washington’s foes and Iran and Russia entrenched in the country, efforts to end the US footprint have not gained traction in Congress.

Lawmakers are also concerned that Turkey could take advantage of an American withdrawal to launch an assault on Kurdish militants it considers “terrorists” but who the US regards as allies. 

As expected, US-Israeli military ties also take up a big chunk of the 2024 NDAA’s Middle East portfolio.

One of the main concerns among lawmakers appears to be how the war in Ukraine might impact Washington’s ability to arm its closest Middle East ally. In January, The New York Times reported that the Pentagon had tapped into its military stockpile in Israel - known as WRSA-I - to provide artillery shells to Kyiv.

An amendment in the House NDAA calls on the Pentagon to provide a report on the status of US stockpiles of precision-guided munitions in Israel. Lawmakers want to know the “quantity and type of munitions” the US transferred to Ukraine and what the Pentagon will replace them with in order to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge against its neighbours.

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The amendment also calls for the secretary of defence to brief lawmakers on the potential for increased US-Israel defence collaboration in emerging technologies.

Lawmakers are also working to include legislation designed to counter maritime threats emanating from Iran in the NDAA, Congressional sources told MEE.

The Maritime Act was introduced in April by the Abraham Accords Caucuses in the Senate and House, with the aim of strengthening security cooperation between Israel, the US and its Arab partners.

Israel and Arab countries have quietly cooperated on security and intelligence matters for decades, but ties came out in the open with the signing of the Abraham Accords when the UAE, Morocco and Bahrain normalised relations with Israel.

Despite a flourishing arms trade and closer engagement between these countries in formats like Centcom - US military command for the Middle East - Arab countries have recently signalled a more cautious approach to Israel amid concerns about getting caught in a potential clash between Israel and Iran. The UAE and Saudi Arabia have both restored diplomatic relations with Tehran.

Meanwhile, plans for a summit between Arab countries, Israel and the US in Morocco were shelved by Rabat amid rising tensions in the occupied West Bank.

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