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EU ministers seek unity on arming Iraqi Kurds

EU ministers convene in Brussels on Friday (Aug 15) in a rare summertime meeting to seek unanimous approval for the shipment of arms to Iraqi Kurds fighting Islamic State jihadists.

BRUSSELS: EU ministers convene in Brussels on Friday (Aug 15) in a rare summertime meeting to seek unanimous approval for the shipment of arms to Iraqi Kurds fighting Islamic State jihadists.

The unscheduled gathering comes after days of forceful demands by France, whose Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius criticised EU colleagues for remaining on holiday while besieged civilians were being killed in Iraq. "When there are people dying... you have to come back from your holidays," Fabius said earlier this week, after writing a letter to EU foreign affairs supremo Catherine Ashton demanding an extraordinary meeting of ministers.

Italy, which currently holds the EU's rotating leadership and whose foreign minister Federica Mogherini is on the short-list to replace Ashton this year, also called for talks. "We're not talking about military intervention but providing support, even of a military sort, to the Kurdish government," she said.

Defence matters are strictly the purview of member states and France and Britain have already announced they will ship weapons to Iraqi Kurds struggling to push back Islamic State fighters. But alarming images of Iraqi minorities, including Christians, under siege by jihadists have struck chords in European capitals and France and Italy, are leading the push for an EU-wide pledge for arms.

EU governments are also alarmed by the Islamic State's ability to attract fighters from Europe who then return home to the West battle-hardened from jihad.

Ahead of Friday's meeting, support for a strong message on arming Iraq was growing, even from member states historically less inclined to back military adventure abroad. Usually cautious Germany this week pledged to work "full-speed" on the supply of "non-lethal" equipment such as armoured vehicles, helmets and flak vests to Iraq.

Sweden, which is usually reluctant to participate in military missions, seemed open to a more rigorous response as well. "Seems as if rescue mission planned for Mount Sinjar in Iraq is no longer considered necessary," said Foreign Minister Carl Bildt in a tweet, in reference to the isolated hills where tens of thousands of ethnic Yazidis were believed to be stranded. "But general Islamic State threat certainly still there," he added.

With about 20 of the EU's 28 foreign ministers expected to be present, Fabius tweeted Thursday that the ministerial meeting was taking place "at my initiative" in a thinly veiled dig at Ashton's office. A senior European official, speaking in the run-up to the talks, deplored the "distorted" view of a shut-down EU in August. This was "at best unfair", he said. The European Union "is not on holiday."

Earlier this week, the European Commission announced it would boost humanitarian aid to Iraq to €17 million (S$28.3 million), and greenlit special emergency measures to meet the crisis. But Humanitarian Affairs Commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, also a frontrunner to replace Ashton, said the real challenge in helping civilians was access, not funding.

Also on the agenda will be the crises in Ukraine and Gaza and a request by Spain to address the Ebola outbreak in west Africa.

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