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US-led coalition pulls trainers from Iraq over virus

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Baghdad (AFP)

The US-led coalition is temporarily withdrawing training forces from Iraq as a protective measure against the novel coronavirus, a senior official in the alliance said on Thursday.

The UK defence ministry had already announced it was bringing some of its troops home, citing a "reduced requirement for training" Iraqi security forces.

Iraq's military had halted all training in early March to minimise the risk of the respiratory illness spreading among its forces, including from the US-led coalition helping fight remnants of the Islamic State group.

"We're in another pause, and we're saying to our people, there's no need to physically be here while we wait this out," the official told reporters in Baghdad.

He did not specify how many of the 2,500 coalition personnel involved in training were withdrawn.

"When the coronavirus situation calms down, we will bring people back in and resume training as necessary," the official said, on condition of anonymity.

Iraqi health officials have confirmed 13 deaths and more than 170 cases of COVID-19, now a global pandemic.

The British defence ministry said the precautionary pause would last 60 days.

Key UK military personnel will remain in Iraq supporting the government in Baghdad, the coalition and British interests, the ministry said.

Troops brought home could be redeployed elsewhere in the world, but could also be asked to support family members affected by the outbreak, which has claimed more than 100 lives in Britain.

Defence minister Ben Wallace said: "In recent months the tempo of training has significantly declined, which means that I am in a position to bring back the current training unit to the UK.

"There remains a significant footprint of UK armed forces within the coalition and elsewhere," he added, promising London would remain committed to the "complete defeat" of IS remnants.

- 'Fewer bases, fewer people' -

The pull-out coincided with the separate consolidation of coalition forces deployed at around a dozen Iraqi bases.

Based on plans developed last year, the alliance was beginning to pull out forces from some of those bases and hand over equipment to Iraqi forces there.

"The bottom line is that we're going to focus our efforts on supporting the Iraqi security forces in their efforts against (IS) from fewer bases and with fewer people," the official said.

Around 300 coalition forces left Qaim, a western base along the border with Syria, this week.

Other withdrawals are expected from bases in Kirkuk and Qayyarah further north in the coming weeks, a US military official told AFP on Tuesday.

Most of those forces would be relocated to other bases in Iraq but the rest would be deployed abroad, including to neighbouring Syria and Kuwait.

The relocations come amid an intensification of rocket attacks targeting the US embassy and Iraqi bases where foreign troops are located.

There have been at least 24 such attacks since October, with four taking place in the last eight days.

One of them, a volley of rockets on the northern airbase of Taji, killed three coalition personnel on March 11.

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