The US stationed several Black Hawk helicopters in Erbil this month. AFP photo.
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – The United States is opening an air base in the Kurdistan Region, and planes based there will carry out surveillance missions but not bombing raids, a Kurdish official said.
Helgurd Hekmat, spokesman for the Kurdish Peshmerga forces fighting on the ground against ISIS, said that US military planes and personnel would be deployed at the new base, which was still under construction.
“The base Is close to Erbil,” he told Turkey’s Anadolu Agency, without giving more details. "The aircraft will carry out surveillance," he added, “but those on bombing missions will not take off from the new base."
Hekmat said the base – once ready – would be used by all countries that are part of the US-led coalition arrayed against insurgents fighting under the Islamic State (ISIS) banner.
US warplanes have been pounding ISIS positions in Iraq since early August, with some Western and Arab states more recently taking part.
In a news briefing in Washington on Tuesday, Pentagon Spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby denied that the US had any military bases in Erbil.
“We don't have a military base in Erbil. There are some Combat Search and Rescue assets that we have up in Erbil, should they be needed, and we're grateful for the space that they're able to occupy up there,” he said.
The United States sent a number of Black Hawk helicopters to Erbil this month, enabling quicker rescue missions, after insurgents killed a downed Jordanian pilot by burning him alive.
The deployment reportedly happened after the United Arab Emirates refused to fly missions over Iraq unless there was a quick rescue operation in place to rescue other downed pilots.
The New York Times reported that the Black Hawks were sent to Erbil over objections by Baghdad, which sees any strengthening of the Kurds as a possible step toward the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) declaring independence for Iraq’s estimated 5 million Kurds.
But Kirby said that every US move across Iraq – including Kurdistan -- was coordinated with Iraqi officials: “We coordinate and consult with them before we make any major decisions inside their country. It is their country.”