Iraqi Kurds to offer artillery support, not direct combat, in Kobani

ARBIL Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdish forces will not engage in direct combat in the Syrian town of Kobani but are to provide artillery support for fellow Kurds fending off Islamic State militants there, the regional government's spokesman told Reuters on Sunday.

Islamic State fighters have been trying to capture Kobani, also known as Ayn al-Arab, for over a month, pressing their assault despite U.S.-led air strikes on their positions and the deaths of hundreds of their fighters.

Last week, Ankara said it would allow Iraqi Kurdish fighters passage through Turkish territory in order to reach the besieged border town. The autonomous region's parliament voted in favor of deploying some of its peshmerga forces, which have been fighting their own battle against Islamic State in northern Iraq, to Syria.

"Primarily, it will be a back-up support with artillery and other weapons," Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Reuters. "It will not be combat troops as such, at this point anyway."

The Syrian Kurdish forces defending Kobani have said heavier weaponry is vital to fighting the better armed Islamic State fighters.

They have specifically asked for armor-piercing missiles able to destroy the tanks and other armored vehicles used by Islamic State.

The Syrian Kurds said weapons airdropped to them by the U.S. air force last week were not enough to defeat Islamic State. U.S. officials had described those weapons, which were supplied by the Iraqi Kurdish authorities, as "small arms".

In a separate interview with Reuters on Sunday, the chief of staff to the president of Iraqi Kurdistan said the peshmerga were ready to depart as soon as a timetable had been finalised with Ankara and Kurds in Syria.

Fuad Hussein said he expected the deployment of 155 peshmerga fighters to go ahead "one of these days".

Asked about the kind of weapons the peshmerga would take to Syria, Hussein described them as "semi-heavy" and said they would enable Kurdish fighters in Kobani, who are only lightly armed, to counter Islamic State's tanks and armored vehicles.

The battle for Kobani has taken on major political significance for Turkey, whose own Kurds have been infuriated by Ankara's reluctance to intervene, threatening to derail a peace process between the government and separatist guerrillas.

On the prospect of further peshmerga deployments to Kobani in future, Dizayee said: "It all depends on how things go on the ground. I think this should and can be discussed at a later point."

(Reporting by Isabel Coles and Ned Parker; Editing by Michael Georgy and Kevin Liffey)