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Iraqi Kurdish troops headed to Syria to fight militants

In this image taken from video, people welcome peshmerga soldiers as they arrive at the Ibrahim Khalil border entrance in Zakho, Iraq, today. (Associated Press)
In this image taken from video, people welcome peshmerga soldiers as they arrive at the Ibrahim Khalil border entrance in Zakho, Iraq, today. (Associated Press)
Bram Janssen Associated Press

IRBIL, Iraq – A group of Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga troops arrived in Turkey early today and headed toward the border to help their Syrian brethren fight Islamic State extremists in the embattled town of Kobani.

Earlier, they received a rousing send-off from thousands of cheering, flag-waving supporters as they left the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil by plane for Turkey.

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.

The peshmerga forces landed early today at the Sanliurfa airport in southeastern Turkey, according to AP video journalists. They left the airport in buses escorted by Turkish security forces and are expected to travel to Kobani through the Mursitpinar border crossing.

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 militants 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 militants – 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.

A separate Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers and trucks with cannons and machine guns crossed into Turkey early today at the Ibrahim Khalil border crossing at Zakho in northern Iraq en route to Kobani.

The Kurds of Syria and Iraq have become a major focus in the war against the Islamic State group, with Kurdish populations in both countries under significant threat by the militants’ lightning advance as they seek to establish an Islamic caliphate in the region.

The Kurdish parliament voted overwhelmingly to send fighters to Kobani, underscoring the growing cooperation among the Kurds in Iraq and Syria. The action marked the first mission for the peshmerga outside Iraq.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said U.S. officials “certainly encourage” the deployment of Iraqi peshmerga forces to Kobani.

It will provide much-needed support for the Syrian Kurds, although it is not clear whether Turkey will allow the peshmerga fighters to carry enough weaponry to make an impact.

The U.S. Central Command said U.S. military forces carried out four airstrikes near Kobani in the past 24 hours, destroying four IS fighting positions and a small IS unit.

In Berlin, Syria’s neighbors urged European countries at a conference of foreign ministers and representatives from 40 nations to open their doors to more refugees, and for immediate financial and technological help.

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