US coalition suspends Iraq training over coronavirus

Britain is withdrawing some of its troops from a global training mission in Iraq because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Reuters/File Photo)
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Updated 19 March 2020

US coalition suspends Iraq training over coronavirus

  • The official said Iraqi forces had stopped training because they were avoiding large gatherings to prevent infection
  • Britain also said it was withdrawing some of its troops from a global training mission in Iraq because of the coronavirus outbreak

BAGHDAD: US-led coalition fighting Islamic State has suspended training of Iraqi forces over coronavirus fears, a senior coalition military official said on Thursday.
The move coincides with a drawdown announced this week of coalition troops in Iraq, as Iranian-backed militias step up rocket attacks on bases hosting foreign forces. Two US military personnel and a British soldier were killed in an incident this month.
Coalition officials say the reduction of troops and relocation of units into fewer Iraqi bases is because Iraqi forces are mostly capable of containing the threat from remaining Daesh militants on their own.
The US-led coalition has supported the Iraqi military since 2014 in the fight against Daesh.
Since the Sunni Muslim extremist group’s defeat in Iraq in 2017, US-Iranian tension has put the coalition increasingly in the crosshairs of Shiite militia groups backed by Tehran.
The coalition suspended training in January when militia rocket attacks increased and the United States killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraq’s top paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis in a drone strike in Baghdad.
Training was set to resume in full but coronavirus fears have halted it again, said the coalition military official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity.
The official said Iraqi forces had stopped training because they were avoiding large gatherings to prevent infection and that was affecting what US forces were doing as part of their mission.
Coalition training “isn’t happening because of the health risks associated with it,” the official said, adding that some coalition trainers had left Iraq. He said it was not clear when training would resume.
Iraq has recorded 177 cases of the disease including 12 deaths, the health ministry says.
The US-led coalition withdrew from a base at Al-Qaim on the border with Syria this week, saying in a statement it would relocate personnel and equipment from several Iraqi bases this year, without elaborating.
“We’re going to focus ... on supporting the Iraqi security forces in their efforts against Daesh from fewer bases and with fewer people,” the official said.
The coalition currently deploys around 7,500 troops in Iraq, including 5,000 Americans.

Britain also said it was withdrawing some of its troops from a global training mission in Iraq because of the coronavirus outbreak.
The decision to redeploy was made because there had been a "reduced requirement for training" from the Iraqi security forces and a pause in coalition and NATO training missions.
"The Ministry of Defense has therefore decided to redeploy some of its personnel back to the United Kingdom," it said in a statement.
Britain has been working alongside coalition partners in Iraq since 2014 to train Iraqi security forces but the programme has been "paused" for 60 days as a precaution because of COVID-19.

After Soleimani was killed, Iraq’s parliament called for foreign troops to withdraw.
Military analysts fear a drawdown in coalition troop numbers could hamper efforts to fight Daesh , which is trying regroup and carrying out regular attacks across much of northern Iraq.


Lebanese farmers sow seeds for new cannabis growers’ syndicate

Updated 36 min 28 sec ago

Lebanese farmers sow seeds for new cannabis growers’ syndicate

  • Ministers, MPs rumored to be buying agricultural land after law legalizes production for medical, industrial uses

BEIRUT: A group of Lebanese farmers have sown the seeds for the setting up of a growers’ syndicate for the production of cannabis plants.

The move to establish a founding committee of agricultural sector representatives followed a decision by the Lebanese Parliament in April to legalize the use of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes.

In doing so, Lebanon become the first Arab country to pass a law allowing the cultivation of the plant for specific non-recreational uses.  

Farmers from the Baalbek-Hermel Governorate in eastern Lebanon announced plans for the formation of the new committee during a press conference held at a tourist complex in the region.

Former president of the Tobacco Growers’ Association in Baalbek-Hermel, Ahmed Zaiter, told Arab News: “Through the founding committee that we intend to form from representatives of families in the region who work in agriculture in general, we wanted to move the law enforcement mechanism in preparation for obtaining licenses to start planting cannabis, knowing that there are those who grow hashish in the region and we do not yet know whether this plant is the same one that was legislated.”

The new Lebanese law will provide for the formation of a government-monitored regulatory body to manage the cultivation, production, and export of cannabis. The cultivation process produces the drug tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and industrially fibers from the plant can be used for making products such as clothes and cars.

A 2018 study by US consulting firm McKinsey and Co. estimated that Lebanon could generate $1 billion annually from legalizing cannabis cultivation.

Zaiter pointed out “the importance of the birth of a syndicate of cannabis growers to organize this cultivation, the need to grant licenses to farmers, start preparing for seed insurance, and receive this plant from the state.”

He added that farmers would be demanding that priority was given to the agricultural sector in the Bekaa Valley and the Baalbek-Hermel region and for the syndicate, when established, to join the Union of Agricultural Syndicates in Lebanon.

A body is to be set up to monitor and regulate all activities related to cannabis and its derivatives, including planting, cultivation, harvesting, production, possession, export, storage, marketing, and distribution.

Cannabis is known in the northern Bekaa as “green gold” and its cultivation was active during the civil war in the 1970s in remote areas of the region where armed mafias were formed to guard and smuggle it abroad.

During the early 1950s, about 300 tons of cannabis was produced every year in border regions between Lebanon and Syria.

Under international pressure, state agencies began the process of destroying cannabis crops in the 1990s.

During the press conference, farmers discussed claims circulated on social media that ministers and MPs had been buying agricultural land in the Baalbek-Hermel region.

Zaiter said: “These farmers have expressed their fear that the new owners aim to engage in this agriculture in the future and monopolize its production and sale.”

Baalbek official, Haider Shams, told Arab News that land purchases, especially in remote parts of the region, were on the rise. “The price of 1 meter ranges from $5 to $10. Many people are buying in Majdaloun and Taybeh, but I don’t think it has anything to do with the cultivation of cannabis.”

Zaiter said: “So far, none of the MPs who legislated the law know what kind of Indian hemp (cannabis) they allowed.

“One of the specialists showed us a plant with few green leaves, which is not the one grown by cannabis growers in Lebanon, which means that there are many types of this plant, and if the legalized plant is the one with few leaves, I do not think that anyone will accept its cultivation because it is a losing cultivation.”

Meanwhile, the Lebanese Army Command announced on Monday that gunmen had killed one soldier during a dawn attack on an army patrol and military centers in Talia, Pretal, Al-Khader, and Douris.

The military has linked the raids to an incident the day before when fugitive Abbas Al-Masri fired shots into the air at an army checkpoint in Douris while trying to drive through. Checkpoint personnel shot and injured Al-Masri and a passenger in his vehicle and both casualties were transferred to a hospital in Baalbek for treatment.