Brussels, 12 February 2020 (dpa/MIA) – NATO allies plan to beef up their training activities for Iraqi troops fighting the Islamic State – taking over some responsibilities from the United States-led global coalition – assuming they get the green light from Baghdad.
The alliance’s 29 defence ministers “agreed in principle to enhance NATO’s training mission,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced on Wednesday in a move expected to placate the US president.
Donald Trump called last month for NATO allies to play a greater role in promoting shared defence goals in the Middle East.
The initiative “will consist of taking on some of the global coalition’s current training activities,” Stoltenberg said.
It is too soon to say whether the plan would involve the transfer of personnel between the two missions or any net change in the number of NATO-state troops in Iraq, he added.
The US-led coalition mission has a broader scope and is involved in combat as well as anti-propaganda activities in both Iraq and Syria, whereas the 500-personnel-strong NATO mission is restricted to training local forces in Iraq.
Any increased NATO presence would hinge on Iraqi consent. The country’s parliament voted last month to expel foreign troops, in protest at the US assassination of a top Iranian military commander on Iraqi soil, which they argued violated their sovereignty.
The ensuing flare-up in regional tensions has caused a partial suspension in activities for both the NATO and global coalition missions.
The NATO mission is expected to resume normal operations as soon as the security situation allows, according to the alliance chief.
“NATO is in Iraq on the invitation of the Iraqi government, and we will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome,” Stoltenberg stressed. “Because NATO fully respects Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Baghdad is also waiting on the installation of a new government, expected within a month, before it can take a decision.
Trump made no concrete demands in connection with his plea for greater NATO engagement in the region. US NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison said on Tuesday that transferring troops over to the NATO mission would be satisfactory for Washington.
NATO will also look at what it can do in the Middle East beyond Iraq, Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.
He pointed to NATO’s presence in Afghanistan and intelligence cooperation with Jordan and Tunisia.
Increasing NATO’s presence in the region is not popular among Washington’s 28 allies however, a diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
The Middle East has a long history of failed and unpopular foreign interventions.
On Thursday, talks at NATO’s headquarters will turn to the alliance’s mission in Afghanistan and the challenge arising from Russia’s new missile systems.