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US-led Coalition pauses training of Iraqi forces, ISIS operations over force protection concerns

The U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State has paused training of Iraqi forces and partnered operations against the militants due to a barrage of attacks against American bases over the last weeks that have killed a civilian contractor and left U.S. and Iraqi forces injured, CJTF-OIR said in a statement on Sunday.

Iraqi bases housing Coalition forces came under rocket fire late on January 4, the 13th such attack in the last two months.

“As a result we are now fully committed to protecting the Iraqi bases that host Coalition troops. This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review,” the January 5 statement said, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

The statement blamed the attacks on Kataib Hezbollah, a Hashd al-Shaabi militia group whose commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis was killed in a U.S. airstrike on Friday.

Despite the declaration of the defeat of what U.S. officials call Islamic State’s “territorial caliphate,” earlier this year the group has sleeper cells throughout Iraq and has proven itself capable of deadly assaults on Iraqi civilian and military targets.

A Coalition source told The Defense Post that the priority was force protection, and the U.S. would conduct operations against ISIS with its partners in Iraq and Syria if the militants presented a threat to bases.

Rockets fired at Baghdad’s ultra-secure Green Zone fell near Coalition facilities around 7:45 p.m. on Saturday. Five minutes later, rockets landed in the vicinity of Balad air base, about 80 km (50 miles) north. The Baghdad attack injured Iraqi civilians.

Coalition future in Iraq

The future of U.S. counter-ISIS operations in Iraq is under threat after the drone strike that killed Muhandis and Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force. After caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi vowed to expel Americans from the country, Iraqi lawmakers voted on Sunday to end a security agreement with the U.S. and could force American forces to withdraw.

Kurdish and Sunni MPs boycotted the vote, and it’s not certain when the Iraqi government will adopt the resolution, which calls on it to end the presence of foreign forces on Iraqi soil and prohibit the use of its “land, air space or water for any reason.” U.S. operations against ISIS in Iraq are carried out in accordance with a 2014 agreement with the former government.

NATO had already said it too would suspend training of Iraqi forces following the strike that killed Muhandis and Soleimani.

The Pentagon, not the Coalition, was responsible for the strike, as well as December 29 strikes against Kataib Hezbollah after the IRGC-backed militia allegedly attacked the K1 base near Kirkuk two days earlier, killing an American civilian contractor and injuring Iraqi Security Forces and U.S. military personnel.

There are around 5,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, and 4,000 additional forces are set to be deployed to the region following a New Year’s Eve attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad in retaliation for the December 29 strikes.

It’s unclear whether the Coalition will also pause training of Peshmerga forces in the more stable autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. The U.S. is not part of the multi-national Kurdistan Training Coordination Center, currently led by Italy, that became part of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve last year.

Almost 50,000 Peshmerga have been trained by the KTCC so far, but European Coalition personnel have expressed doubts that the force will be ready in time for a planned transition to a “mentorship” role later this year that would see them take over their own security.

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