IRBIL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi Kurdish forces will only stay in Syria "temporarily" to help reinforce fellow Kurds fighting to defend the town of Kobani from militants with the Islamic State group, an Iraqi Kurdish politician said Sunday, adding that coalition airstrikes alone will not defeat the militant threat.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Nechervan Barzani, prime minister of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, said involvement of Kurdish peshmerga fighters in Syria isn't intended to achieve any political goals, but rather, is geared at the short-term goal of aiding fellow Kurds in the embattled town along the Syrian-Turkish border.
"Our role is to back up the people who are struggling on the ground in Kobani," he said. "I don't ... expect major changes in the political equation of the region as a whole."
Over the past year, the group now known as the Islamic State has carved out a proto-state on the territory it holds between Syria and Iraq, ruling with its own harsh interpretation of Shariah law. It has captured weapons and found means for making money along the way, helping to fuel their intense offensive.
The IS group's offensive on Kobani and nearby Syrian villages has killed more than 800 people, activists say. The Sunni extremists captured dozens of Kurdish villages and control parts of Kobani. More than 200,000 people have fled into Turkey as a result.
Iraqi peshmerga fighters entered Kobani via Turkey Thursday — the first from a group of 150 Kurdish troops on their way into the town, activists said. A peshmerga fighter said Sunday that the Iraqi Kurdish forces were fighting on the southeastern outskirts of Kobani in a village called Sheran. The fighter, who only gave his first name Rebwar because he was not authorized to speak to reporters, said there were heavy clashes, but did not mention casualties.
Barzani said the American government played a role in influencing Turkey to allow Kurdish peshmerga troops to travel by land via Turkey to Syria as the conflict between Syrian Kurdish fighters and the IS group intensified in the border town. Turkey had been reluctant to open the border to allow members of the Syrian Kurdish militia — known as the People's Protection Units, or YPG — to travel through Turkish territory to reinforce Kobani because it believes YPG is affiliated with the Kurdish PKK movement in southeastern Turkey that has waged an anti-government insurgency.
"For peshmerga forces to move from Iraqi Kurdistan and march across Turkish soil to help Kobani... we all know that it was a difficult decision," Barzani said of Turkey's decision to grant passage to Iraqi Kurdish forces. "This wouldn't happen without the Turks."
Barzani acknowledged that peshmerga fighters still face a difficult battle against IS at home with fighters looking to retake towns across northern Iraq. Beyond coalition airstrikes, which began with U.S. airstrikes in Iraq on Aug. 8, a number of countries have come to the aid of peshmerga forces in the form of weapons deliveries, as well as humanitarian aid to more than a million displaced people who have sought refuge in the Kurdish region.
The Kurdish premier said airstrikes alone will not solve the threat, which he called a "cancer," adding that allied governments must make a more serious effort to arm Kurdish forces.
"We can't say that they provided any material thing to change the situation on the operational ground," he said. "The arms provided to us so far are more light weapons, but what are really needed (are) heavy arms," particularly anti-tank missiles, which he said only Germany has provided. "Since 2003, neither Iraq nor the United States let us buy a single bullet from abroad... What to be afraid of? Why don't they support the peshmerga in this respect?"
He also called upon the Iraqi security forces to offer more support to Kurdish forces battling the extremist group inside Iraq.
"We are still waiting for (Baghdad's) response to send forces, but they didn't send any forces so far," he said.
Meanwhile, the Syrian government has come under fire by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said it documented the deaths of 1,917 people inside Syrian government jails and detention facilities this year.
The bodies of some of the dead have been returned to relatives, the Observatory said, while others were only given a death certificate. A third group was forced to sign documents saying that opposition groups had killed their relatives, according to the Observatory, which relies upon a network of activists inside Syria.
Rights groups have long accused the government of holding tens of thousands of Syrians in detention facilities in which torture and abuse are rampant and systematic.
Salama reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writers Elena Becatoros in Mursitpinar, Turkey and Ryan Lucas in Beirut and contributed to this report.