The German army on Sunday announced it has restarted training Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters, despite a political and military conflict between the autonomous region and Baghdad.
The Bundeswehr has been training and supplying weapons to the peshmerga for three years to help the Iraqi Kurds beat back the “Islamic State” (IS).
It has provided some 32,000 assault rifles and machine guns, as well as the MILAN anti-tank missile, valued at some €90 million ($106 million) since September 2014. Some 150 Bundeswehr troops are in northern Iraq, and peshmerga units have also received training in Germany.
But the training mission was suspended for a week after the central government in Baghdad, backed by Iranian-trained paramilitary groups, moved to reassert control over disputed territories the Kurds have captured since June 2014.
The largely bloodless reassertion of central government control over large swaths of territory, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, came in response to a non-binding Kurdish independence referendum held last month.
Germany, alongside the United States, UN and regional powers Turkey and Iran had warned against the referendum, which Baghdad called illegal.
The standoff between Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds has turned the Bundeswehr mission into a delicate political issue, raising the prospect that Germany could get caught between two partners.
Highlighting the dangers, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command accused the peshmerga this week of using the German-supplied MILAN missile against its forces after the Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed it destroyed several US supplied humvees and two tanks, including a US M1 Abrams tank. The peshmerga denied the allegations that they had used the MILAN missile, which was provided by Germany strictly to defend against IS, according to Kurdish news portal Rudaw.
German politics complicates mission
Earlier this week, the German government said it had temporally suspended training peshmerga because it had sought to “always ensure the unity of Iraq.”
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters that training was paused “so no wrong signal would be sent.”
The Bundeswehr trained peshmerga and provided weapons to help defend against IS
The mandate of the training mission lasts until January 31, 2018.
At that time, the cabinet and Bundestag must extend the mandate in order for training to continue.
But the current dispute between the Kurds and Baghdad has cast the future of the mission in doubt at a time when IS has largely been beaten back in Iraq.
It comes as German Chancellor Angela Merkel is in talks to form a “Jamaica” government coalition, so named for the colors of her conservative Christian Democrats (CDU), Greens and liberal Free Democrats, after her election victory last month.
Read more: Merkel’s coalition talks for next German government: What you need to know
“The meaningfulness of the mission in northern Iraq is absolutely in question, and not only just militarily, but especially politically and legally, because the constitutional status of northern Iraq [Kurdistan] is at stake,” Omid Nouripour, a Green party politician and member of the foreign policy and defense committees in the Bundestag, told German public broadcaster ARD on Sunday.
“Therefore, a withdrawal of the Bundeswehr would be appropriate. At the same time, political capital must be invested to prevent a military conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds. That would only create only one winner: IS,” he said.
The head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, the CDU’s Norbert Röttgen, also questioned the long-term continuation of the Bundeswehr mission.
He told ARD that the Bundeswehr mandate could be extended another three months until April, but then discussed with the new coalition government.
At that point it is possible that continuing with mission would not be possible, he said.
“It is too early to leap to conclusions that we will simply continue,” he said.
He added that IS has largely been defeated and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani committed an historic miscalculation in holding the referendum that turned him into a factor of instability in the region.