Iraq weighs larger NATO role to replace US-led coalition

The Canadian-led NATO mission was set up in 2018 and has around 500 forces training Iraqi troops, although its operations have also been on hold since the US strike. (File/AFP)
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Updated 29 January 2020

Iraq weighs larger NATO role to replace US-led coalition

  • Iraq’s parliament voted in favor of ousting all foreign troops
  • The Canadian-led NATO mission was set up in 2018 and has around 500 forces training Iraqi troops

BAGHDAD: Iraq is considering a larger role for NATO at the expense of the US-led coalition, Iraqi and Western officials told AFP, after an American drone strike on Baghdad that sparked outrage.
The January 3 strike which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a top Iraqi commander was condemned by Baghdad as a breach of its sovereignty and of the coalition’s mandate, which focuses on fighting Daesh.
Iraq’s parliament swiftly voted in favor of ousting all foreign troops — including the 5,200 US soldiers — and the coalition’s anti-Daesh operations were indefinitely suspended.
Fearing a swift withdrawal could be destabilising, Iraqi and Western officials have begun discussing changes to the coalition’s role, according to local officials and diplomats.
“We are talking to the coalition countries — France, the UK, Canada — about a range of scenarios,” said Abdelkarim Khalaf, spokesman for Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
“The essential thing is that no combat troops are present and our airspace is no longer used,” Khalaf told AFP.
Two Western officials said the premier had asked them to “draft some options” on a path forward for the coalition.
These options had been submitted directly to the premier.
They included a coalition not led by the US, an amended mandate with limits to coalition activities or an expanded role for NATO’s separate mission in Iraq.
The Canadian-led NATO mission was set up in 2018 and has around 500 forces training Iraqi troops, although its operations have also been on hold since the US strike.
By comparison, the US-led coalition established in 2014 has up to 8,000 troops in Iraq, the bulk of them American forces.
Khalaf told AFP that a larger role for NATO was one of several options being discussed.
One of the Western officials said “the NATO option” has won initial nods of approval from the prime minister, the military and even anti-US elements of the powerful Hashed Al-Shaabi military network.
“I expect it will end with some sort of compromise — a smaller presence under a different title,” he said.
“The Americans will still be able to fight IS and the Iraqis can claim they kicked (the US) out.”
The various options are expected to be laid out at a meeting Wednesday between Iraq and NATO in Amman and again next month by NATO’s defense ministers.
“But there is recognition among the Europeans that there needs to be US buy-in to whatever happens next,” the Western official said.
Following parliament’s vote, Abdel Mahdi invited the US to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss a withdrawal, but the State Department declined.
US President Donald Trump himself has said he wants NATO to play a larger role in the region.
His special envoy to the coalition, James Jeffrey, hinted at a shift last week although he said talks were in “a very early stage.”
“So there may be a shift between — at some point, hypothetically — between the number of forces under the NATO rubric and the number of forces under the coalition,” he told reporters on January 23.
NATO, whose mandate in Iraq is renewed yearly, has insisted any broader role would only involve training and an official from the alliance said there was “no discussion” of a combat role.
“There have been discussions between allies, and a lot of contact between NATO and the government of Iraq in the last couple of weeks,” a NATO official told AFP.
Since Iraq declared Daesh defeated in late 2017, coalition forces have focused on conducting air strikes and surveillance to rout militant sleeper cells.
Beginning last year, the coalition prepared plans for a troop drawdown in Iraq, two senior US defense officials said, adding that a smaller footprint would “absolutely” still be able to keep pressure on Daesh.
It was forced to “speed up that plan” in the wake of escalating Iran-US tensions, one of the officials said.
Since October, nearly 20 rocket attacks have targeted the US embassy in Baghdad or Iraqi bases hosting American forces, killing one US contractor and an Iraqi soldier.
While no one has claimed responsibility, Washington has blamed Iran-aligned factions.
Both the coalition and NATO paused operations and pulled hundreds of personnel from bases across Iraq earlier this month.
Iraqi forces have filled the gap left by the force relocation, conducting surveillance missions and air strikes on their own after years of the coalition taking the lead.
“It’s a de facto downsizing. It’s a trial run,” the first US official said.
“That’s ultimately what we’ve been striving for. We’re looking at what it would be like if we weren’t here.”


Saudi-led coalition tightens the screws on Houthi smuggling routes

Iranian-backed militants ride on the back of a police patrol truck after participating in a Houthi gathering in Sanaa, as Yemen’s legitimage government tightens security measures. (Reuters)
Updated 17 min 57 sec ago

Saudi-led coalition tightens the screws on Houthi smuggling routes

  • Security measures intensified around main sea and land entry posts in Yemen to prevent Iran arms supply to rebels

AL-MUKALLA: The Saudi-led coalition and Yemen’s internationally recognized government have intensified security measures around main sea and land entry posts in Yemen to prevent Iran from smuggling arms to Houthis in Yemen.

Over the last couple of months, hundreds of Yemeni coast guard soldiers have been deployed off the Yemeni coasts on the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, as the coalition tightens security checks at the Shihen border crossing in the western province of Mahra.
Dozens of army and security checkpoints have also stepped up the inspection of vehicles that cross into Houthi-controlled territories in northern Yemen. Local army officers and experts say those measures have yielded considerable results, as several arms shipments have been intercepted before reaching the Houthis.

Yemen alert
In the Red Sea, local officers said Yemeni troops had consolidated their presence on the island of Perim near Bab Al-Mandab Strait, and off the coasts of the provinces of Hodeida and Taiz.
The coast guard initiated a hotline for receiving alerts from local fishermen, who were urged to report any suspected movements of boats in the Red Sea.
“Local fishermen are now helping us monitor the sea. They alert us about any ship or a boat suspected of carrying weapons to Houthis,” a coast guard officer in the Red Sea Khokha district told Arab News on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters, adding that coast guard forces had increased sea patrols around Zuqar and Perim Islands with the same aim.
The two islands are located at the southern entrance of the Red Sea, where arms shipments from Iran are thought to pass through.
The same officer said that three ships carrying a large amount of explosive materials heading to Houthis had been intercepted at sea in the last three months.
Last week, the commander of the Yemeni coast guard in the western coast announced seizing a ship carrying 20 tons of urea fertilizer. The material can be used for making bombs.
The investigation with the three Yemeni fishermen captured on the ship showed that they received cargo from unidentified smugglers near the Somali port city of Zeila and were asked to give it to the Houthis for several thousand Saudi riyals.
“A big smuggling network is involved,” the officer who learned about the investigation said.
“We are confident that the Iranian smugglers do not directly hand over shipments to the Yemenis. All directions come from big smugglers in Yemen. We have learnt that Iranian smugglers pretending to be fishermen are active near Somalia.”

FASTFACTS

• The coast guard initiated a hotline for receiving alerts from local fishermen.

• Three ships carrying a large amount of explosive materials heading to Houthis ‘had been intercepted at sea in the last three months.’

• Yemen’s coast guard authority crumbled in late 2014 when Houthis seized control of Sanaa and expanded across the country, triggering a civil war.

In the southeastern province of Hadramout, dozens of soldiers have been deployed across a vast and porous coastline at suspected entry points for arms and drugs.
Maj. Gen. Faraj Salmeen Al-Bahsani, the governor of Hadramout, said the deployment was the last phase of a plan aimed at securing the province’s coasts.
“The coalition has asked us to secure areas between Shiher and Mahra to prevent smuggling,” he told Arab News. “We have discovered several vehicles carrying weapons to the Houthis.”

Starting from scratch
Yemen’s coast guard authority crumbled in late 2014 when Houthis seized control of Sanaa and expanded across the country, triggering a civil war.
When the Saudi-led coalition intervened militarily in support of Yemen’s government, monitoring the country’s sea waters was left to the coalition’s navy. At the same time, the coalition had to rebuild the coast guard by training troops inside and outside Yemen, building facilities and equipping the forces with boats that would enable them to take on the mission.
The governor of Hadramout said that the coast guard branch in the large province was now working without much help as the coalition had furnished them with the equipment needed for the missions.
“We have stood on our feet thanks to great help from the coalition. They provided us with radar and boats,” Al-Bahsani added.

Smuggling focal points
Yemeni experts believed that large shipments of Iranian weapons to the Houthis went through a few seaports that were under rebel control in the western province of Hodeida.
“It is true that the Houthis might bring in light devices and weapons on land through government-controlled areas. But rockets, drones and heavy weapons come through Hodeida,” Yasser Al Yafae, a political analyst, told Arab News.
Hodeida city, which hosts Yemen’s biggest seaport, was the target of a major military offensive that managed to liberate several seaports on the Red Sea and reach the city’s outskirts.
The offensive was canceled in late 2018 under the UN-brokered Stockholm Agreement that obliged the coalition-backed Yemeni forces to stop hostilities in exchange for a Houthi withdrawal from Hodeida’s seaport. Two years later, the Houthis have neither pulled out of the seaports nor allowed inspection on ships docked.
“The inauspicious Stockholm Agreement allowed Houthis to use Hodeida seaports to smuggle, weapons, weapons and drones,” Yahya Abu Hatem, a Yemeni military expert, told Al-Arabiya Al-Hadath on Friday.