Thousands of cheering, flag-waving people gave a noisy send-off to a group of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga troops who left Tuesday for Turkey — the first step on their way to help their Syrian brethren fight Islamic terroirsts in the embattled border town of Kobani.
The unprecedented mission by the 150 fighters to help fellow Kurds in their battle with the Islamic State group came after Ankara agreed to allow the peshmerga to cross into Syria via Turkey — although the Turkish prime minister reiterated that his country would not be sending any ground forces of its own to Kobani.
A U.S. State Department official confirmed that peshmerga fighters are on their way to Kobani but did not know when they were expected to arrive. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified in discussing the issue.
Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told the BBC that sending the peshmerga was “the only way to help Kobani, since other countries don’t want to use ground troops.”
The Islamic State group launched its offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages in mid-September, killing more than 800 people, according to activists. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages around Kobani and control parts of the town. More than 200,000 people have fled across the border into Turkey.
The U.S. is leading a coalition that has carried out dozens of airstrikes targeting the Islamic State in and around Kobani.
The deployment of the 150 peshmerga fighters, who were authorized by the Iraqi Kurdish government to go to Kobani, underscores the sensitive political tensions in the region.
Turkey’s government views the Syrian Kurds defending Kobani as loyal to what Ankara regards as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. That group has waged a 30-year insurgency in Turkey and is designated a terrorist group by the U.S. and NATO.
Under pressure to take greater action against the IS terrorists, from the West as well as from Kurds inside Turkey and Syria, the Turkish government agreed to let the fighters cross through its territory. But it only is allowing the peshmerga forces from Iraq, with whom it has a good relationship, and not those from the PKK.
Peshmerga spokesman Halgurd Hekmat said the fighters were flying Tuesday to Turkey and from there would cross into Syria.