NATO agrees to expand Iraq training mission

3 min

Brussels (AFP)

NATO defence ministers agreed Wednesday to expand the alliance's training mission in Iraq, responding to US President Donald Trump's demand for more action from allies in the Middle East.

The idea is for NATO, which runs a 500-strong mission to train Iraqi forces, to take on personnel from the US-led multinational coalition against the Islamic State group.

"Allied Defence Ministers have agreed in principle to enhance NATO’s training mission in Iraq in close cooperation & coordination with the Iraqi government," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg tweeted.

Spain said it was ready to transfer troops currently working under the aegis of the coalition to the NATO mission, as Western powers seek to enable Iraq to prevent any resurgence of the feared jihadist group.

"We support moving a major part of the Spanish contingent to the NATO mission, while still continuing to work with the coalition," Spanish Defence Minister Margarita Robles said, insisting that any changes must have the backing of the Iraqi government.

Stoltenberg said the alliance wanted to "provide more support to Iraq, because it is extremely important that ISIS never returns.

"We have seen the brutality, have seen the horrendous violence they have been responsible for," he added.

- Munich meeting -

Trump called on NATO to do more in the Middle East in January, days after a US drone strike against a top Iranian commander in Baghdad sparked a regional crisis.

The January 3 strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani sparked outrage in Baghdad and a vote by the Iraqi parliament to oust all foreign troops -- including 5,200 US soldiers.

The anti-IS coalition halted its campaign for three weeks in response, and NATO stopped training activities while insisting it remained committed to helping Iraq.

British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said London was also open to moving some of its troops to the NATO mission, which is seen as more palatable to the Iraqi authorities because of its non-combat role and because it is not US-led.

Germany's Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said it was too early to discuss transfers but "core nations" with forces in Iraq will meet on Friday at the Munich Security Conference to discuss the future of the missions.

While the NATO mission would do similar training activities to the anti-IS coalition, officials feel the alliance could make it more effective by bringing greater structure and coordination -- drawing on experience of training forces in Afghanistan.

Beyond increasing the size of the mission by rebadging coalition personnel, ministers also looked at how NATO could expand its training activities.

This could involve extending geographically outside NATO's current three training zones or adding more training activities.

As a longer-term objective, NATO is looking to see what it could do elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa to improve stability and fight terrorism by training local forces.

"This is both about military activities, but also political support and cooperation with countries in the region," Stoltenberg said.