BRITAIN is to supply £1.6 million of machine guns and ammunition to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State (IS) militants in northern Iraq as part of a burgeoning international effort to drive back the jihadists.

The announcement of the first shipment of UK arms to the Peshmerga fighters came as US President Barack Obama prepared to set out his strategy for "degrading and ultimately destroying" IS in a televised address today.

Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said the move was intended to increase the firepower of the Kurdish forces who have been outgunned by the well-armed IS.

"The Kurdish forces remain significantly less well equipped than IS and we are responding to help them defend themselves, protect citizens and push back IS advances," he said in a Commons statement.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the Government would consider what else it could contribute to the US plan with other "like-minded" nations who held discussions on the situation at last week's Nato summit in Wales. He affirmed a commitment by Prime Minister David Cameron that MPs would be given a vote before any UK forces were committed to operations against IS.

Mr Hammond also reacted cautiously to the prospect of extending military action against IS to Syria where it is thought to be holding Scots aid worker David Haines and other western hostages.

"The technical and cultural differences between Iraq and Syria are very significant. We are dealing with very different situations in the two." he said.

Although Mr Hammond he ruled out direct co-operation with President Bashar al Assad against IS, he acknowledged that the UK was rebuilding diplomatic relations with Iran - one of the Syrian dictator's few remaining allies.