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.”


Iran says scientist jailed in US to return in days

Updated 01 June 2020

Iran says scientist jailed in US to return in days

  • Asgari was accused by a US court in 2016 of stealing trade secrets while on an academic visit to Ohio
  • Iran’s foreign ministry said last month that Asgari had contracted the novel coronavirus while in US custody

TEHRAN: Tehran said Monday that scientist Sirous Asgari, one of more than a dozen Iranians behind bars in the United States, is set to return to the Islamic republic within days.
Asgari was accused by a US court in 2016 of stealing trade secrets while on an academic visit to Ohio.
But the 59-year-old scientist from Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology was acquitted in November.
The academic told British newspaper The Guardian in March that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency was keeping him in a detention center in Louisiana without basic sanitation and refusing to let him return to Iran despite his exoneration.
“Dr. Sirous Asgari’s case has been closed in America and he will probably return to the country in the next two or three days,” said Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi.
“That is, if no issues or obstacles come up,” he said, quoted by semi-official news agency ISNA.
Iran’s foreign ministry said last month that Asgari had contracted the novel coronavirus while in US custody.
If he returns to Iran, the scientist would become one of the few detainees held by either side not to have been released in a prisoner exchange.
Both Iran and the United States hold a number of each other’s nationals and they have recently called for them to be released amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Iran is battling what is the Middle East’s deadliest outbreak of the virus, while the US has reported the highest total number of deaths worldwide from the disease.
Iran is holding at least five Americans and the US has 19 Iranians in detention, according to a list compiled by AFP based on official statements and media reports.
Tensions between the two arch enemies escalated in 2018, after President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew the US from a landmark nuclear agreement and reimposed crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy.
Government spokesman Ali Rabiei said last month that Tehran had offered “some time ago” to exchange all Iranian and US prisoners but was waiting for a response from the US.
Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of US homeland security, responded mockingly by saying Iran should “send a charter plane over” and return its nationals.
Mousavi hit back on Twitter by saying the world “is watching your action, not your word.”
The Islamic republic in December freed Xiyue Wang, a US academic, in exchange for scientist Massoud Soleimani and said it was open to further swaps.
It has also said it has released more than 100,000 inmates, including 1,000 foreigners, to ease the pressure on Iran’s prison system during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Americans and dual nationals currently known to be held by Iran include US Navy veteran Michael R. White, Siamak Namazi along with his father Baquer, Morad Tahbaz, Gholam Reza Shahini, and Karan Vafadari.
Asgari is one of the 19 held by the US, most of them dual nationals and charged with evading sanctions by either exporting goods to Iran or using the US financial system.
Long-time foes Iran and the United States have appeared to come to the brink of a direct conflict twice in the past year.
The most recent case was in January when Iran fired a barrage of missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq in retaliation for a US drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani, a top Iranian general.
Trump refrained from taking any military action in response, however.
Iran on Monday also vowed to keep sending shipments of fuel to Venezuela in defiance of US threats.
The US has imposed unilateral sanctions aimed at ending oil exports by both Iran and Venezuela, both major crude producers.
“If Venezuela demands new shipments, we will export more to this country and any other who requires our shipments,” Mousavi said.
It comes days after Iranian tankers carrying much-needed petrol arrived in Venezuela.