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.