Iraq is considering a larger role for NATO at the expense of the US-led coalition, Iraqi and Western officials told reporters, after a US drone strike on Baghdad that sparked outrage.
The Jan. 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 the Islamic State (IS) group.
Iraq’s parliament swiftly voted in favor of ousting all foreign troops — including the 5,200 US soldiers — and the coalition’s anti-IS operations were indefinitely suspended.
Fearing a swift withdrawal could be destabilizing, Iraqi and Western officials have begun discussing changes to the coalition’s role, local officials and diplomats said.
“We are talking to the coalition countries — France, the UK, Canada — about a range of scenarios,” said Abdelkarim Khalaf, a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
“The essential thing is that no combat troops are present and our airspace is no longer used,” Khalaf told reporters.
Two Western officials said that the prime minister had asked them to “draft some options” on a path forward for the coalition.
These options had been submitted directly to Abdel Mahdi.
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 about 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 US forces.
Khalaf told reporters 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 Abdel Mahdi, the Iraqi 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 were expected to be laid out at a meeting yesterday between Iraq and NATO in Amman and again next month by NATO 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 the parliament vote, Abdel Mahdi invited the US to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss a withdrawal, but the US Department of State declined.
US President Donald Trump has said he wants NATO to play a larger role in the region.
His special envoy to the coalition, James Jeffrey, last week hinted at a shift, 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 Thursday last week.
NATO, whose mandate in Iraq is renewed yearly, has said that any broader role would only involve training, and an official from the alliance said that 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 reporters.
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