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WASHINGTON – For years, Kurdish officials have beseeched the Obama administration to let them buy U.S. weapons. And for just as long, the administration has rebuffed the Kurds, America's closest allies in Iraq.
U.S. officials insisted they could only sell arms to the government in Baghdad, even after Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki broke a written promise to deliver some of them to the Kurds, whose peaceful, semi-autonomous northern region had been the lone success story to come out of the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Now, the administration is confronting the consequences of that policy. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which some American officials have dubbed "a terrorist army," overpowered lightly armed Kurdish units in a blitzkrieg that has threatened the Kurdish region and the American personnel stationed there.
In June, the Pentagon dispatched 300 military advisers to Iraq. Dozens of them are operating out of Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, which is now under threat from the Islamic State.
In a bitter irony, the extremists used American armored vehicles and weapons they had seized from the hapless Iraqi military to defeat Kurdish fighters who were blocked from acquiring just such equipment, U.S. and Kurdish officials said.
The U.S. sought to halt the extremists' advance Friday with airstrikes, but Kurdish officials also say Washington has promised to begin sending them arms. Pentagon officials say their policy hasn't changed — they will only sell arms to Baghdad.
That raises the question of whether the CIA has begun providing weapons in secret to the Kurds, something U.S. officials will neither confirm nor deny. The CIA declined to comment on whether it was sending arms.
But whether or not a covert program is underway, a growing number of voices are calling for the U.S. to begin openly and speedily arming the Kurds.
"If Baghdad isn't supplying the Kurds with the weapons that they need, we should provide them directly to the Kurds," said Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee.
"The only way to confront this threat is to arm Iraqi security forces and Kurdish forces, and yet we're doing nothing to support either one of those," said retired Gen. Michael Barbero, who used to run the mission training the Iraqi military. "It just doesn't make sense to me. It's an existential threat, so why we are not in there at least equipping and arming them?"
White House spokesman John Earnest said Friday the U.S. has begun stepping up its help to the Iraqi military and the Kurds.
"We have a strong military-to-military relationship with Iraq's security forces, and the Iraqi security forces have shared some of those assets with Kurdish security forces," Earnest said. "We have also demonstrated a willingness to increase the flow of supplies, including arms, to Kurdish security forces as they confront the threat that's posed by ISIL."
In an interview published Saturday in The New York Times, Obama praised the Kurds and how they've governed their region of Iraq. But he said the U.S. does not want to get into the business of providing an air force for either the Iraqi government or the Kurds.
The president said he was telling the various factions, "We will be your partners, but we are not going to do it for you. We're not sending a bunch of U.S. troops back on the ground to keep a lid on things."
Karwan Zebari, spokesman for the Iraqi Kurdistan region in Washington, said in an interview that U.S. officials have assured him that guns and ammunition would be forthcoming.
"Last night, they said, 'We will be moving expediently with providing you some military assets,'" he said Friday.
The U.S. has not wanted to stoke the Kurds' desire for, and Baghdad's fear of, an independent Kurdish state. Officials tried to steer some of the aid to the Kurds, but it didn't work.
Under the Pentagon's foreign military sales program, some $200 million worth of American weapons that was supposed to be earmarked for the Kurds by the Maliki government was never delivered to them, Barbero said.
"This policy of one Iraq, everything goes through Baghdad, ignores the reality on the ground," Barbero said in an interview.
Zebari and Barbero said Kurdish forces have been outgunned by ISIL troops driving in armored American Humvees and firing American machine guns seized from the Iraqi army.
"It's not that the peshmerga forces are scared or not willing to fight," Zebari said, referring to the Kurdish militia. "They are coming at us with armored Humvees and we're throwing these AK-47 bullets at them. It doesn't do anything. At some point you run out of bullets."
The Kurds have some tanks and armored vehicles, but not in Sinjar, a city far from the Kurdish seats of power in Irbil and Suliminiya. That city fell swiftly to an onslaught from Islamic State fighters, leading thousands of members of the Yazidi religious minority to flee to a mountaintop, where the U.S. has airdropped supplies to stave off deaths from hunger and thirst.
Many of the peshmerga soldiers defending Sinjar had just six magazines of ammunition, said a former CIA official with close ties to the region who spoke on condition of anonymity because he got the information in confidence.
U.S. airstrikes are not "the endgame," Zebari said. "What has changed for the peshmerga on the ground? Nothing. We still need that military equipment."