The Obama administration has begun directly providing weapons to Kurdish forces who have started to make gains against Islamic militants in northern Iraq, senior U.S. officials said Monday.
Previously, the U.S. had insisted on only selling arms to the Iraqi government in Baghdad, but the Kurdish peshmerga fighters had been losing ground to Islamic State militants in recent weeks.
The officials wouldn't say which U.S. agency is providing the arms or what weapons are being sent, but one official said it isn't the Pentagon. The CIA has historically done similar quiet arming operations.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the operation publicly.
The move to directly aid the Kurds underscores the level of U.S. concern about the Islamic State militants' gains in the north, and reflects the persistent administration view that the Iraqis must take the necessary steps to solve their own security problems.
To bolster that effort, 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 logistic assistance and transportation to the north.
The State Department sought to downplay the significance of the apparent shift in U.S. policy.
The militants have "obtained some heavy weaponry, and the Kurds need additional arms and we're providing those — there's nothing new here," said department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
She said the U.S. was working with Baghdad to speed up deliveries of "badly needed arms" to Kurdish forces in the north. The Iraqi government, she said, "has made deliveries from its own stocks and we are working to do the same."
The additional assistance comes as Kurdish forces on Sunday took back two towns from the Islamic 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 Yazidi refugees fleeing militants.