Members of the U.S.-led Coalition against Islamic State are pulling troops from Iraq as training of both the Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdistan Region’s Peshmerga are paused due to security concerns and uncertainty over the future of the multinational mission.
The Coalition said over that weekend that it would pause the ongoing training of Iraqi forces to focus on force protection after repeated attacks by suspected pro-Iran militias. NATO has also stopped its training in Iraq, and said on Tuesday it would also withdraw some of its 500 trainers from the country while relocating others.
A German ministry of defense spokesperson told The Defense Post that the Coalition had also suspended training of the Peshmerga forces in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. Personnel already in the KRI will remain but the spokesperson said the situation was evolving rapidly and the Bundeswehr had suspended the scheduled troop rotation for Erbil, the capital of the autonomous region.
Germany said Tuesday that it would move 35 soldiers involved in the ISF training mission into neighboring Kuwait and Jordan. Croatian forces will also withdraw to Kuwait, while Slovenia‘s six soldiers are staying in Erbil, BalkanInsight reported.
Romania is moving its 14 troops from Baghdad to another base in Iraq, AFP reported. France said it had strengthened the protection of its 160 soldiers, and the United Kingdom has urged Iraq to allow British troops to stay in the country but relocated some personnel from Baghdad to Taji. “A small team has been sent to the region to provide additional situational awareness, and contingency planning assistance,” Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace said.
Finland has not yet made a decision about pulling troops – such a move would require an agreement by parliament and the president – but soldiers training the Peshmerga in Erbil have been asked to stay on base.
Coalition personnel generally move freely around the Kurdistan Region as it is considered to be safer than the rest of Iraq.
Canada said it would move some of its 500 military members from Iraq to Kuwait. “Planned [leave] and rotation of people in and out of their tours will be interrupted,” Canadian Armed Forces’ Chief of Defence Staff General Jonathan Vance said.
The Coalition boasts 81 members, including NATO, but not all countries contribute troops.
The move comes after a letter outlining U.S. plans to relocate personnel in preparation to “move out of Iraq” was released, citing the Iraqi parliamentary decision to call for the removal of American forces from the country. The Pentagon later said the letter was a “mistake” but that it had been sent to the Iraqi government. Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, however, said that his office received a signed copy of the letter and considered it a withdrawal notice.
“A draft unsigned letter that was acquired by an Iraqi official has no import. It has no value whatsoever … the United States is not withdrawing from Iraq,” Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CNN on Tuesday.
U.S. officials say they are preparing for Iran to retaliate for the killing of General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, leader of the Iraqi Hashd al-Shaabi militia Kataib Hezbollah.
Iraq’s parliament on Sunday approved a non-binding resolution calling for the expulsion of foreign forces from the country over the drone strike that killed Somali and Muhandis.
CJTF-OIR spokesperson Myles B. Caggins told The Defense Post late Monday that there was to be “no withdrawal” but the Coalition has not publicly commented on the letter.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley told reporters the letter was a draft that should not have been sent.
The Coalition also denied a report in Iranian media that CJTF-OIR command center is to be temporarily moved to Kuwait from Iraq.
“The military Coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria has conducted operations from split-based headquarters in Iraq and Kuwait since 2014. We have not transferred the headquarters,” a CJTF-OIR spokesperson said Tuesday, reiterating, “we are not withdrawing from Iraq.”
Despite the declarations of victory over Islamic State’s “territorial caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the group maintains sleeper cells and has carried out deadly attacks on Iraqi civilians and military personnel.
Iran designated the U.S. Army and the Department of Defense terrorist organizations on Tuesday over Soleimani’s killing.
There are around 5,000 U.S. forces in Iraq and roughly 4,000 soldiers from the 1st Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division began deploying to Kuwait and Iraq last week following attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq and the embassy in Baghdad.
U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to impose crippling sanctions on Iraq if American forces are forced from the country.