The anti-Islamic State strategy the U.S. is developing first began to take shape a month ago after a series of increasingly urgent phone calls from this Kurdish city.
In one, Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani told Vice President Joe Biden the jihadists were within 25 miles of Erbil, which is both the capital of the Kurdish region and home to U.S. military, intelligence, diplomatic and corporate offices. The message: Unless the U.S. stepped in, Erbil could fall in days.
“Something in Barzani’s voice made [Mr. Biden] think, ‘We need to do something here,’ ” said a U.S. official describing the call, which Kurdish officials also confirmed.
Later that day, President Barack Obama, who had long resisted pressure from the government in Baghdad to help fight the Islamic State menace, authorized airstrikes on the militants approaching Erbil. He also approved both overt and covert programs to resupply the Kurdish fighters known as the Peshmerga against the jihadist threat spanning the Syria-Iraq border.
The airstrike campaign spread this past weekend as the U.S. sought to stop jihadists threatening a dam on the Euphrates upriver from Baghdad. The administration also is seeking to form an international coalition to fight Islamic State, which Mr. Obama is expected to elaborate on in a speech Wednesday. As the intense telephone contacts with Erbil a month ago show, the Kurds, a people with whom the U.S. has had a decadeslong but sometimes wary partnership, play a central role in U.S. plans to combat the jihadist threat.
In Iraq, administration officials envision Kurdish fighters as a leading edge in a potential ground campaign against Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Officials also think that Kurdish fighters in Syria may be critical in battling the jihadists in that country, where the Defense Department is drawing up options that include airstrikes.