The Obama administration has begun directly providing weapons to Kurdish forces, who have started to make gains against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq, senior U.S. officials said Monday.
The United States previously had insisted on only selling arms to the Iraqi government in Baghdad, but the Kurdish peshmerga fighters had been losing ground to Islamic State in recent weeks.
The news of more direct support for the Kurds comes as the central government in Baghdad faces a rapidly sharpening political crisis. Iraq's embattled Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has faced pressure domestically and internationally to step aside, defied critics on Sunday and announced he will file a legal complaint on Monday against the country's newly elected president, Fouad Masoum, an ethnic Kurd. But many of his erstwhile Shia supporters subsequently announced they would not be supporting a third term for Maliki.
Iraq's largest coalition of Shia political parties on Monday chose the deputy prime minister to be its candidate to lead the government – a major defeat for Maliki, just hours after he declared himself the rightful candidate and put troops on the street.
The Iraqi National nominated Haider Al-Abadi to replace Maliki and to form a new government to attempt to unify the country against the growing threat of radical fighters, alliance head Ibrahim al-Jaafari said in a statement.
The deadlock over a new government has plunged Iraq into a political crisis just as Islamic State fighters have gained significant ground in the country's north and west over the last two months. Maliki has resisted calls for his resignation, and the political infighting could hamper efforts to stem advances by the Sunni militants.
Meanwhile, U.S. officials would not say which agency is providing the arms or what weapons are being sent in its ramped-up military support role, but one official said it is not the Pentagon. The CIA has historically done similar arming operations. A senior State Department official would only say that the Kurds are "getting arms from various sources. They are being rearmed."
The move to directly aid the Kurds underscores the level of U.S. concern about Islamic State gains in the north, and reflects the persistent administration view that the Iraqis must take the necessary steps to solve their own security problems.
The administration is also very close to approving plans for the Pentagon to arm the Kurds, a senior official said. In recent days, the U.S. military has been helping facilitate weapons deliveries from the Iraqis to the Kurds, providing logistical assistance and transportation to the north.
The additional assistance comes as Kurdish forces on Sunday took back two towns from Islamic State insurgents, aided in part by U.S. airstrikes in the region. President Barack Obama authorized the airstrikes to protect U.S. interests and personnel in the region, including at facilities in Irbil, as well as minority Yazidi refugees fleeing the fighters for fear of massacre.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking to reporters while on a trip to Australia, said the airstrikes "have been very effective from all the reports that we've received on the ground." He declined to detail how or when the U.S. might expand its assistance to Iraq, or to say whether military assessment teams currently in Baghdad would be moving to a more active role advising the Iraqi forces.
"We're going to continue to support the Iraqi security forces in every way that we can as they request assistance there," Hagel said during a news conference with Australian Defense Minister David Johnston.
At the same time, the administration is watching carefully as a political crisis brews in Baghdad, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry warned Maliki to maintain calm amid the upheaval.
"We believe that the government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining the stability and calm in Iraq," Kerry said. "And our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters."
Speaking in Australia on Monday, Kerry said there should be no use of force by political factions as Iraq struggles form a government. He said that the people of Iraq have made clear their desire for change, and that the country's new president is acting appropriately despite claims of malfeasance by Maliki.
In a televised speech after midnight Sunday, Maliki declared he would file a legal complaint against the Massoum for committing "a clear constitutional violation."
The prime minister said the president, who was elected by parliament, is obstructing his re-election and has carried out "a coup against the constitution and the political process."
Maliki's Shia-dominated bloc won the most parliament seats in April elections, and the prime minister sees himself as rightfully keeping the post for a third term. He accused Massoum of neglecting to name a prime minister by Sunday's deadline.
Kerry noted that Maliki's political bloc has put forward three other candidates for the prime minister job, and said the U.S. stands with the new president.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press