A U.S. soldier from the 3rd Cavalry Regiment shields himself from the rotor wash of a UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter after being dropped off for a mission with the Afghan police near Jalalabad in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan December 20, 2014.Reuters
The United States has deployed an additional number of Black Hawk helicopters to Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, raising the prospect of a widening rift between Baghdad and the Kurds over their role in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The helicopters are intended to increase the capability of the coalition forces to rescue downed pilots after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) halted its air operations due to safety concerns following the capture of Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kasasbeh by ISIS. However, U.S. officials have declined to confirm if this development will bring UAE back into the coalition fold.
“The United Arab Emirates has demanded that the United States put in place a more effective search-and-rescue system in Northern Iraq, close to the battleground, instead of basing aircraft for such missions much farther south in Kuwait,” says Wladimir van Wilgenburg, an analyst on Kurdish politics for the Jamestown Foundation.
However, according to the New York Times the Iraqi government has been angered by the stationing of the helicopters in the Kurdish capital, with officials in Baghdad voicing their complaints to U.S. officials that the deployment will increase Kurdish calls for independence.
Baghdad had explicitly protested the American decision to deploy the Black Hawks to Kurdistan, a senior U.S. administration official reported. However, the official declined to reveal how many helicopters were being dispatched to the region.
“Erbil is much closer to ISIS territory than Baghdad, so it’s quite logical that they place them in Erbil. Black Hawks are reconnaissance and rescue helicopters, they are not meant to carry out combat missions,” adds van Wilgenburg.
Last month, 5,000 Kurdish Peshmerga fighters backed by coalition airstrikes, launched a large-scale operation against ISIS in northern Iraq, recapturing a 300-mile swathe of territory including the towns of Makhmour, to the east of Iraq’s second-city of Mosul, and the towns of Zimar and Wannah, west of Mosul.
However, this recapturing of territory sparked further fears in Baghdad that the Kurds will maintain their hold on the Iraqi territory and use it as leverage in future negotiations on Kurdish independence.
A senior Kurdish federal official, speaking on condition of anonymity to Newsweek, said that the land would never be handed back. “All the current military operations that involve the Peshmerga are implemented in coordination with the international military coalition and the central government is aware of it, but, in the Kurdish areas, we will never ever let Arabs control them again,” the official warned.
“We are not ready to fight, terrify our fighters’ souls to liberate these areas and hand them to a traitor who would sell it to the killers. We will not allow this scenario to take place again in these areas.”
The Kurds’ success on the battlefield in northern Iraq has also led to disagreement between Erbil and Baghdad over their respective roles in any potential operation on the city of Mosul, which ISIS seized last summer.
Iraqis believe that the battle against “[ISIS] is everyone’s to fight”, according to Hamed al-Khudari, a senior Shia lawmaker, while Kurds believe that Arab-Sunnis within the city must liberate the territory themselves.
Last year, the president of the Kurdistan region, Marsoud Barzani, pleaded with the international community to provide military aid as ISIS edged closer to its territory. Italy, France, Australia, Britain and the U.S. have since all pledged arms to the Kurds, bypassing the traditional move of delivering military aid to Baghdad first before it was transported to Kurdistan.