EU ministers back military aid for Iraq’s Kurds

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BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers on Friday unanimously endorsed the efforts of individual member states to provide military support to the beleaguered Kurds in northern Iraq, and welcomed attempts by U.S. forces to head off an escalation of the humanitarian crisis there.

Called back from their summer vacations by EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, the top diplomats of the 28-nation bloc had been seeking to forge a common response to the latest escalation of the crisis in Iraq, in which the semiautonomous Kurdish north has been threatened by militants of the Islamic State.

Speaking to reporters before the meeting here, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, urged Europe “to mobilize itself.” France has already said it would supply arms to the Kurds. European opinion on how to respond has been particularly inflamed by the plight of thousands of Yazidis and Christians who have been driven from their homes by threats from Islamic State fighters.

A statement about the ministers’ conclusions on Iraq contained no mention of coordinated military assistance. Rather, it said they would continue to work on providing humanitarian aid and welcomed “the decision by individual member states to respond positively to the call by the Kurdish regional authorities to provide urgently needed military matériel.”

“The EU welcomes the U.S. efforts to support the Iraqi national and local authorities in their fight against ISIL and recognizes international and European responsibility to cooperate with Iraq in our common fight against terrorism,” the union statement said, using an abbreviation for another of the Islamic State’s translated names.

In addition to the French, the Czechs and Italians were also said to be preparing military aid for Iraq, and British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has said Britain would look “favorably” on Iraqi requests for arms to combat the Islamic State.

The meeting Friday came a day after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said he had agreed to relinquish power after days of pressure from the United States and of rumors in Baghdad that a military coup was in the offing. Ms. Ashton, speaking after the EU meeting, praised the “very statesmanlike way” in which Mr. Maliki had stepped aside to allow progress toward a political solution.

While the meeting did not yield any actual commitments on military aid, a senior EU official characterized the unanimous decision to back such aid from individual members as a victory — and a necessary one at that, given that the union itself has no military forces of its own. “I don’t know if there’s any precedent,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in accordance with protocol, “but it’s very important, and even up until today, some member states had reservations” about providing arms.

The agreement was testament to the fact that “nobody underestimates the threat from ISIL,” he said. “The Baghdad authorities were very eager that we support the Kurds.”

Despite the united front Friday, EU members regularly struggle to agree on a coordinated response to military threats. One obstacle is Germany, which remains reluctant to test the limits of its policy prohibiting the export of weapons to conflict zones.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in an afternoon news conference in Brussels that the question of supplying weapons of any kind, the subject of intense political debate in Germany, had become pressing “as it has become clearer in Europe and in Germany that the advance of the ISIS forces will not stop in Kurdistan” unless action is taken. (ISIS is an abbreviation of another of the Islamic State’s translated names.)

Mr. Steinmeier said he would fly to Baghdad and Irbil, in northern Iraq, after a short stop in Berlin, to meet with officials and observe the situation in person. “The murderous actions and the military advance of ISIS must be halted,” he said, adding that Europe must offer help with longer-term shelter and infrastructure, sanitation and emergency aid.

With Sunni Islamist militants threatening the country’s cohesion, the United States has suggested that Mr. Maliki’s departure might open the way to greater U.S. military support.

This week, U.S. forces were reported to be drawing up plans for a full-scale rescue mission for Yazidis marooned on Mount Sinjar, near the Syrian border in northern Iraq, possibly including the creation of a humanitarian corridor. But the U.S. military has since said an assessment of conditions on Mount Sinjar by a small team of Marines and special forces showed that the crisis there was effectively over. Yazidi leaders and emergency relief officials have rejected that assessment.

The newfound urgency in Europe came after France broke ranks with other European countries Wednesday and said it would help arm Kurdish peshmerga forces confronting advances by the Islamic State. France and Italy are also reported to be pressing for a broader European commitment to supply the Kurds with matériel including body armor, night-vision equipment and ammunition. “These are crises that are of concern to our European neighborhood, to our security and stability,” Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said in Brussels.

Britain had earlier positioned three Tornado warplanes for surveillance missions and a small number of Chinook heavy-lift transport helicopters at a base in Cyprus, within range of the Kurdish region, and has dropped relief supplies to Yazidis fleeing Islamic State forces on Mount Sinjar. Britain has also said it would help transport arms supplies from other countries.

syria - United States - North America - United States military - United States government - Middle East - Europe - France - Western Europe - France government - Iraq - United Kingdom - Laurent Fabius - Germany - Nouri al-Maliki - Iraq government - European Union - Germany government - Baghdad - Catherine Ashton - Frank-Walter Steinmeier - Philip Hammond - Paddy Ashdown


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