NATO agrees to expand training mission in Iraq
BRUSSELS - NATO defence ministers agreed to expand the alliance's training mission in Iraq, responding to US President Donald Trump's demand for more action from allies in the Middle East.
The plan is for NATO, which has a 500-person mission training Iraqi forces, to take on some personnel and training activities run by the US-led multinational coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS).
The Iraqi government gave NATO permission to stay in the country, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said February 13, weeks after Iraq demanded that foreign forces leave because of the US killing of a top Iranian general in Baghdad.
“The government of Iraq has confirmed to us their desire for a continuation of the NATO training, advising and capacity building activities for the Iraqi armed forces,” Stoltenberg said. “We will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome.”
Spain said it was ready to transfer troops working under the aegis of the coalition to the NATO mission as Western powers seek to enable Iraq to prevent a resurgence of ISIS.
"We support moving a major part of the Spanish contingent to the NATO mission, while still continuing to work with the coalition," Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles said, insisting that any changes must have the backing of the Iraqi government.
Stoltenberg said the alliance wanted to "provide more support to Iraq because it is extremely important that ISIS never returns.
"We have seen the brutality, have seen the horrendous violence they have been responsible for," he added.
Trump called on NATO to do more in the Middle East in January, days after a US drone strike against a top Iranian commander in Baghdad sparked a regional crisis. The January 3 attack that killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani sparked a vote by the Iraqi parliament to oust all foreign military personnel, including 5,200 US troops.
The anti-ISIS coalition suspended its campaign for three weeks in response and NATO stopped training activities while insisting it remained committed to helping Iraq.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said London was open to moving some of its troops to the NATO mission, which is seen as more palatable to Iraqi authorities because of its non-combat role and because it is not US-led.
While the NATO mission would do similar training activities to the anti-ISIS coalition, officials said the alliance could make it more effective by bringing greater structure and coordination, owing to its experience of training forces in Afghanistan.
Beyond increasing the size of the mission by rebadging coalition personnel, ministers also looked at how NATO could expand its training activities. This could involve extending geographically outside NATO's three training zones or adding more training activities.
As a longer-term objective, NATO is looking to see what it could do in the Middle East and North Africa to improve stability and fight terrorism by training local forces.
"This is both about military activities but also political support and cooperation with countries in the region," Stoltenberg said.