Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is greeted by Kurdistan Regional Government prime minister Nechervan Barzani as he arrives in Irbil, Iraq, Sunday.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is greeted by Kurdistan Regional Government prime minister Nechervan Barzani as he arrives in Irbil, Iraq, Sunday. (Tara Copp/Stars and Stripes)

IRBIL, Iraq — Defense Secretary Ash Carter assured Kurdish leaders on Sunday that the U.S. would continue to provide air support for Kurdish forces in the campaign to liberate Mosul, as questions remained over Turkey’s role in that fight.

His arrival, which followed a visit to Baghdad on Saturday, coincided with an attack by Kurdish peshmerga forces on Islamic State militants in the village of Bashiqa. The village, located within the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, is key not only for its proximity to Mosul, but also because it is close to the location where Turkish advisers have trained fighters for the Mosul fight — a presence that has become a point of contention for Iraq’s central government.

Kurdistan, a semi-autonomous northern region that is part of Iraq, has about 10,000 troops assisting in the battle. In a historic agreement between the central Iraqi government and the regional Kurdish government, the Kurds agreed to advance no farther than 20 miles to the east of Mosul and then to hold that territory while Iraqi security forces and federal police forces advance into the city.

During his visit to Irbil, Carter met with Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani to emphasize the significance of the Kurds’ continued collaboration with Baghdad in driving the Islamic State group out of the city, which the terrorist group has held since 2014.

Carter said during their discussions, he assured Barzani that peshmerga forces were receiving “the full might of coalition air support.”

Some Kurdish forces have recently expressed their dissatisfaction with the air support they have been receiving from the U.S. and coalition air forces during the current offensive. But Kurdish military spokesman Brig. Gen. Halgord Hekmet downplayed the issue, saying that although there were a few challenges at the beginning of the campaign but, the Kurds were now getting the air support they needed.

Disagreements over the role of Turkish forces in northern Iraq may challenge that partnership. So far, the combined effort by Iraqi and Kurdish forces has seen about 28,000 troops advance more quickly on Mosul than expected.

Kurdistan’s regional government is hosting about 2,000 Turkish soldiers, who have trained 1,000 Kurdish and Sunni forces near Bashiqa, situated about 16 miles east of Mosul.

Iraq’s government, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, wants those Turkish soldiers out of the country and has said Turkish-trained units are not welcome to participate in the Mosul offensive.

Speaking to journalists accompanying Carter, Hekmet said the Turkish forces are not involved in the Bashiqa fight, and that their presence was not an issue for the Kurds. “We at the (Kurdistan Regional Government) have a positive relationship with Turkey,” Hekmet said.

Hekmet said 25 Kurdish fighters have died since the fight for Mosul began. He added that his forces could use some additional equipment support.

The issue of Turkish involvement continues to be a point of contention between Baghdad and Ankara. Earlier in the week, after a meeting with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, Carter said the two countries had “agreed in principle” to an approach that would allow Turkey to be involved in the Mosul fight.

However, Abadi bluntly rejected that deal on Saturday in a meeting with Carter. Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim responded later in the day, saying Turkey was prepared to “take measures” on the issue.

Turkey, which lost control of Mosul and the oil-rich areas nearby after World War I, has long sought to exercise some degree of influence in the region adjacent to its southern border. Today, Ankara still seeks a role in northern Iraq and Syria in order to keep tabs on growing Kurdish nationalism, including Kurdish rebels operating within Turkey who have used Iraq as a safe haven in the past.

During the 1990s, Saddam Hussein’s regime tacitly allowed Ankara to have a security role in the north, but more recently the central government in Baghdad has opposed it, viewing the Turkish presence as an infringement of its sovereignty.

To ensure the Kurds remain engaged, the U.S. administration is giving a lot of attention to the issue. On Saturday, Brett McGurk, White House envoy on the fight against the Islamic State, visited Barzani and also stressed the importance of the Kurds’ continued participation in the campaign.


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