U.S. denies Kurdish ally Salih Muslim's request to visit

U.S. officials praise new Kurdish ally in fight with Islamic State, but won't let its leader visit

The Obama administration lavished praise this week on a Kurdish group in Syria that helped score a victory over Islamic State militants in the border town of Kobani after four months of fighting.

But U.S. officials also made another gesture that seemed a lot less friendly.

State Department officials rebuffed a request from Salih Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, for a visa to visit the United States to deliver a speech.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank, and pro-Kurdish U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), had urged the State Department to allow a visit.

That the rejection came to light "on the day we were celebrating this totally improbable victory in Kobani was really very shocking," said Katherine Wilkens, who invited Muslim in her role as deputy director of Carnegie's Middle East program. "I hope they will reconsider."

Backed by U.S. and allied airstrikes, fighters loyal to Muslim's group, also known as the PYD, helped break the militants' siege of Kobani, which sits on Syria's border with Turkey.

The Pentagon coordinated airstrikes with the Kurds and dropped supplies to them. Last year, the group helped lift the Islamic State siege of Mt. Sinjar in Iraq, allowing thousands of members of the Yazidi minority to flee to safety.

At a time when the Pentagon has found few effective militia allies in the effort to degrade and defeat the Sunni militants, "they have been our boots on the ground," Wilkens said.

But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Turkish military have been wary of the PYD, seeing the group as aligned with the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is officially listed as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States.

Some advocates for Muslim believe the State Department turned down his visa request to avoid offending Turkish sensibilities while the Obama administration is seeking more help from Ankara in the fight against Islamic State.

Among other things, U.S. officials would like Turkey to allow U.S. fighter planes to launch sorties into Syria and Iraq from the Incirlik base in Turkey, rather than from the more distant base in Qatar.

A State Department official, who declined to be identified citing often-used State Department ground rules, said he couldn't discuss the visa request "because visa records are confidential under U.S. law."

He noted that applicants aren't approved unless they meet the "strict requirements of U.S. law."

Muslim may still be able to obtain a visa, however. Federal law sets up hurdles for applicants who might be considered security threats, but it also provides various exceptions for applicants who seek a waiver.

The Carnegie Endowment first invited Muslim and sought a visa for him in 2012. The visa wasn't granted but the case remained open.

Rep. Van Hollen and Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), co-chairs of the Kurdish-American Congressional Caucus, wrote Secretary of State John F. Kerry last month, urging approval of the visa request.

They said they believed the reluctance to grant the visa was in part because of Turkish concerns about the PYD's alleged links to the outlawed PKK.

But they noted that Turkish officials have engaged in talks with Muslim, and have also been negotiating with the imprisoned head of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan.

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