WASHINGTON, Aug 8 (Reuters) - The Iraqi government provided a planeload of ammunition to Peshmerga fighters from Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region on Friday, a U.S. official said, in an unprecedented act of military cooperation between Kurdish and Iraqi forces brought on by an acute militant threat.
The official said Iraqi security forces flew a C-130 cargo plane loaded with mostly small-arms ammunition to Arbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, in a move that American officials hope will help the region's Peshmerga fighters keep militants from the Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, at bay.
"This is unprecedented," the official said on condition of anonymity.
"Developments over the last few days have refocused the issue, and we've seen unprecedented cooperation between Baghdad and Arbil in terms of going after (the Islamic State), not only in terms of conversation but in terms of actual support."
In the first airstrikes in Iraq since U.S. forces withdrew in 2011, U.S. warplanes bombed Islamic State fighters several times on Friday, in an increasingly urgent attempt to halt the militants who have seized a wide swathe of territory since they swept into northern Iraq in June. The hard-line fighters now appear set on trying to take the Kurdish capital.
The grave threat to Arbil, seat of the regional government and a hub for foreign firms in Iraq, appears to have at least temporarily eased a long-running feud between leaders of the Kurdistan region, who have long dreamed of an independent state, and the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite Arab who has sparred with Kurds over land and oil.
As Islamic State fighters made another dramatic advance earlier this week, Maliki ordered his air force for the first time to back Kurdish forces in their fight against militants.
The delivery of ammunition on Friday is sure to be welcome for Kurdish officials who for weeks have complained the Peshmerga, whose name means "those who face death," were overstretched and underequipped against the Islamist fighters, who have weapons seized from Iraqi army bases.
Both steps are significant in a country where in recent years Peshmerga and Iraqi forces under the command of Baghdad have been much closer to fighting each another than to cooperating.
'QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE'
The Obama administration is now working with the Iraqi government, the official said, to ensure additional requests from the Kurdistan Regional Government, for small arms and munitions including mortars and AK-47s, will be met soon.
"We're still coordinating with the government of Iraq to help fill the needs as quickly as possible," the official said.
While the shipment delivered on Friday came from existing Iraqi government stockpiles, the U.S. official said, it was not clear whether additional arms that Baghdad may provide to Kurdistan would come from Iraq's existing arsenal or would come from the United States via Baghdad.
The Obama administration has been reluctant to directly provide weapons to Iraqi Kurds because it would set a precedent for circumventing an allied government and would raise objections from Baghdad.
But the recent Islamic State advance has revealed worrying vulnerabilities of the Kurdish force. After many Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts in the face of the initial Islamic State onslaught, the Peshmerga appeared much more battle-ready. But the Peshmerga too have been routed in the past week.
While the Obama administration has been reluctant to return to military action in Iraq after the long, bloody war that began in 2003, ensuring that hard-line militants cannot enter Arbil, the site of a U.S. consulate and a joint U.S.-Kurdish military operations center, is a priority.
U.S. officials, seeking to ensure the current campaign does not drag the United States into broader military action in Iraq, believe greater cooperation between Iraq's feuding ethnic and sectarian factions is critical to defeating the Islamic State. (Reporting by Missy Ryan; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Eric Beech)
BEFORE YOU GO
08/16/2014 6:17 PM EDT
US Military: Fighters, Drone Aircraft Strike Militants In N Iraq
BREAKING: US military: Fighters, drone aircraft strike militants near Irbil and Mosul Dam in Iraq— The Associated Press (@AP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 6:07 PM EDT
Kurdish Officials Say 300 Killed In Friday 'Massacre'
Correspondent for Britain's The Sunday Times Hala Jaber reports that Kurdish and Yazidi officials say the death toll from the Islamic State's attack on the Iraq village of Kocho on Friday is higher than previously estimated. A Kurdish official initially said around 80 people lost their lives.
.4/ 1000 women were taken as prisoners by #IS split into 2 groups. The "pretty incl gilrs aged btwn 10-11 and the others.— Hala Jaber (@HalaJaber) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 5:57 PM EDT
British PM: Islamic State Militants Could Target UK
Islamic State militants in Iraq could grow strong enough to target the UK unless action is taken - PM David Cameron http://t.co/k2i5CjTm2S— BBC Breaking News (@BBCBreaking) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 4:49 PM EDT
NYT Correspondent Recounts Iraq Helicopter Crash
New York Times correspondent Alissa J. Rubin tells her story inside the Iraqi helicopter that crashed on the Sinjar mountains on Tuesday while attempting to rescue stranded Yazidis.
Rubin was wounded in the crash and dictated the article from her hospital bed in Istanbul, the newspaper notes.
Read her moving account on The New York Times here.
08/16/2014 2:23 PM EDT
Iraq Refugees Learn Of Yazidi Massacre
The BBC's Yalda Hakim reports from a refugee camp in Dohuk on how the Yazidi community learned of an alleged massacre by Islamic State militants in Iraq.
Watch the BBC report here.
08/16/2014 1:03 PM EDT
U.S. Provides Air Support To Kurdish Offensive
Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. warplanes, are battling to recaptured Iraq's largest dam from Islamic State militants, Agence France Presse reports.
More from AFP:
Kurdish forces attacked the Islamic State fighters who wrested the Mosul dam from them a week earlier, a general told AFP.
"Kurdish peshmerga, with US air support, have seized control of the eastern side of the dam" complex, Major General Abdelrahman Korini told AFP, saying several jihadists had been killed.
08/16/2014 12:54 PM EDT
The Kurdish Iraqi leader has appealed to Germany for weapons to battle the advancing Islamic State, Reuters reports.
Germany has shied away from direct involvement in military conflicts for much of the post-war era and a survey conducted for Bild am Sonntag newspaper indicated that almost three quarters of Germans were against shipping weapons to the Kurds.
But Germany's defense minister has said the government was looking into the possibility of delivering military hardware.
Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, said the Kurds needed more than the humanitarian aid that Germany began sending on Friday to support people forced to flee their homes by the Sunni militant group's advance.
"We also expect Germany to deliver weapons and ammunition to our army so that we can fight back against the IS terrorists," Barzani told German magazine Focus. He said they needed German training and what they lacked most were anti-tank weapons.
08/16/2014 11:38 AM EDT
U.S.-Backed Kurds Attempt To Recapture Mosul Dam
#BREAKING: US-backed Kurds in bid to retake Iraq's largest dam: general— Agence France-Presse (@AFP) August 16, 2014
08/16/2014 11:14 AM EDT
Airstrikes Target Islamic State After Reports Of Yazidi Massacre
Airstrikes pounded the area around Iraq's largest dam on Saturday in an effort to drive out militants who captured it earlier this month, as reports emerged of the massacre of some 80 members of the Yazidi religious minority by Islamic extremists.
Residents living near the Mosul Dam told The Associated Press that the area was being targeted by airstrikes, but it was not immediately clear whether the attacks were being carried out by Iraq's air force or the U.S., which last week launched an air campaign aimed at halting the advance of the Islamic State group across the country's north.
The extremist group seized the dam on the Tigris River on Aug. 7. Residents near the dam say the airstrikes killed militants, but that could not immediately be confirmed. The residents spoke on condition of anonymity out of fears for their safety.
08/15/2014 6:31 PM EDT
U.S. May Speed Up Aid To Iraq Despite Billions Already Spent
The United States may accelerate economic and military aid to Iraq now Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has stood down, Reuters reports.
U.S. officials first want assurances that the Iraqi government has moved away from the sectarian policies of al-Maliki's administration, according to the news agency.
Read the full story here.