BRUSSELS – NATO is ready to expand its military training effort in Iraq, the alliance’s top civilian official said Wednesday, but the Iraqi government is not yet ready to approve the move.
The Canada-led operation was launched in 2018 but suspended last month after a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad Airport killed Iran’s top general and Iraq's government and lawmakers demanded that foreign troops leave. U.S. President Donald Trump, meanwhile, has demanded that U.S. allies do more in the Mideast.
The NATO plan now is to move hundreds of trainers working with the international force fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq to NATO’s own mission helping to build up the Iraqi army. No additional personnel would be deployed to the strife-torn country.
After chairing talks between NATO defense ministers, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said that they “agreed in principle to enhance” the training effort in Iraq.
“In the first instance, this will consist of taking on some of the global coalition’s current training activities. Ministers also agreed to explore what more we can do,” he told reporters.
Asked why no agreement was reached Wednesday with the Iraqi government on green-lighting the move, Stoltenberg said only that “we are already in Iraq based on an invitation from Iraq and we will only stay as long as we are welcome.”
“Everything we do will be in close consultation and coordination with the Iraqi government,” he added.
Stoltenberg provided no details of how many troops might shift to the current training force numbering about 500 or what new activities they might eventually undertake. He said more would be known once he meets with top officials in the anti-IS coalition in Munich, Germany on Friday.
Officials have said “a couple of hundred” troops would move. The first step would be to expand the training to three more bases in central Iraq. A second step, possibly over the summer, would see the mission’s mandate changed to take over more activities currently handled by the coalition.
Unlike the global coalition, NATO troops are not involved in combat operations in Iraq.
Despite Trump’s insistence that NATO do more in the Mideast, there is little appetite among European allies and Canada to deploy troops in the region beyond the training effort, even though the United States is by far the biggest and most influential of NATO's 29 member countries.
Some allies even believe the U.S. missile strike in Baghdad has complicated the fight against Islamic State extremists.