Pentagon waiting out coronavirus to invite allies back to Iraq

al-monitor An Iraqi soldier wears a protective face mask as he stands guard at a checkpoint, enforcing a curfew imposed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, in Baghdad, May 3, 2020. Photo by REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani.

May 8, 2020

The American commander of the international coalition against the Islamic State says he is planning to invite a number of US allies back to Iraq once risk from the coronavirus pandemic begins to subside.

“As I see the health conditions presenting an opportunity, I’ll notify those nations … that in 60 days, I’d like them to return,” Army Lt. Gen. Pat White said today.

Some 7,500 international coalition troops were in Iraq until earlier this year. Americans made up about 5,000 of the coalition’s total forces, which do not include NATO’s much smaller stabilization and training mission in Iraq.

The UK withdrew some of its roughly 400 coalition personnel from Iraq in March. Canada also pulled some of its forces, while France, Spain, Portugal, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and New Zealand have all withdrawn their service members from the country.

White said that none of those countries have ruled out sending troops back, and that he anticipates “slow trickle of trainers and mentors” returning over the next several months, while declining to name specific nations.

The coalition commander said he is still discussing coronavirus precautions regarding troop movements with Iraqi officials, which has “slowed us down a little bit.”

“I anticipate we’ll work through the summer,” he told reporters via conference call.

“Based on what Iraqi security forces ask of us, we will resume on path,” the commander said. “We’re waiting for the right conditions.”

The United States said it was withdrawing hundreds of troops from Iraq in March as it consolidated remaining units at more defensible positions at Camp Taji, Ain al-Asad and Erbil air base.

The United States handed over a number of bases to Iraqi security forces over the past two months, including Kirkuk’s K-1 air base, Qaim in Anbar province, Qarayyah airfield near Mosul and Taqqadum air base at Habbaniyah.

The US-led coalition initially said the consolidations had nothing to do with a string of deadly rocket attacks allegedly carried out by Iran-linked militias in Iraq. US military officials have since said those attacks were part of the reason for the reshuffle.

Both international forces and Iraq’s security forces, including the peshmerga in the Kurdistan Region, have paused training operations due to the spread of COVID-19.

Iraq’s parliament passed a nonbinding resolution in January to expel US forces from the country after the Trump administration killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

Questions also remain as to whether coalition member nations will see much urgency in returning to Iraq. There still remains the possibility of expanding NATO’s stabilization mission to help offset any coalition downsizing, US officials have said.

White downplayed recent attacks claimed by IS on Iraqi security forces over the past week, saying the mostly small-arms and mortar attacks do not resemble the “complex” military operations carried out by IS in 2016-17, and that the number of attacks are no higher than they were this time last year.

White said IS has “failed miserably” so far in its ongoing Ramadan operation, and that he was “surprised” the group did not take more immediate advantage of reduced cooperation between international and Iraqi forces due to the coronavirus.

“I don’t know what they’re trying to do,” he said. “I do know they’re lacking in financing, they’re lacking in fighters and they’re lacking in support by the populace in most areas.”

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