Coronavirus: The US in Iraq is “repositioning” forces, ending training

The long-term affect could see the US leave many parts of Iraq quietly consolidating in areas that are more safe or have better defenses.

U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force-Iraq, man a defensive position at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019 (photo credit: U.S. ARMY/STAFF SGT. DESMOND CASSELL/TASK FORCE-IRAQ PUBLIC AFFAIRS/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
U.S. Army soldiers from 1st Brigade, 25th Infantry Division, Task Force-Iraq, man a defensive position at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad, Iraq, December 31, 2019
(photo credit: U.S. ARMY/STAFF SGT. DESMOND CASSELL/TASK FORCE-IRAQ PUBLIC AFFAIRS/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
The US-led anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq is repositioning forces amid two crises. First, there are the rocket attacks by pro-Iranian militias that keep targeting bases where US forces are located. Second, there is the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall, there appears to be several major shifts taking place by the US, UK and potentially others. The long-term effect could see the US leave many parts of Iraq quietly consolidating in areas that are more safe or have better defenses.
“The Coalition is adjusting its positioning in Iraq for two reasons: long-planned adjustments to the force to reflect success in the campaign against Daesh [ISIS]; and short-term moves to protect the force during the coronavirus pandemic," a statement said on Friday. "The Coalition’s military movements are conducted in coordination with the Government of Iraq. Looking ahead, we anticipate the Coalition supporting the Iraqi Security Forces from fewer bases with fewer people.”
There have been rocket attacks against bases where US forces are present since May 2019. One US contractor was killed in December and three coalition personnel were killed earlier this month. Iraqi groups that are linked to Iran such as Kataib Hezbollah have targeted Americans.
The US has been fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria as a leader of the global coalition against ISIS for the last five and a half years. Washington recently handed over a post near al-Qaim; Iraqi officials have said it could represent a US withdrawal. The US withdrew from Iraq in 2011 after having toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Washington says it is only repositioning and that the war against ISIS is largely over. Other voices in Iraq, however, especially in the autonomous Kurdish region, have warned that ISIS is still a threat and that Iranian-backed groups are growing in power.
The coalition says that the repositioning is possible because of successes by the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF). “As a result of the success of ISF in their fight against ISIS, the Coalition is repositioning troops from a few smaller bases. These bases remain under Iraqi control and we will continue our advising partnership for the permanent defeat of Daesh from other Iraqi military bases, providing much-needed specialist support.”

A SECOND problem is coronavirus. The US has been planning since February for the eventuality that it could affect bases and troops, and have followed various global guidelines. However, the virus is now spreading in the US and the threat appears worse. More American officials have come down with the virus or been quarantined and isolated after meeting people who had it.
While Iraq is not a major center of the outbreak, Iran is. There are thought to be 192 cases in Iraq, with some of them in the Kurdistan region. The region has locked down and cut off travel, whereas the rest of Iraq is more lax in dealing with the issue.
The coalition says that “to prevent potential spread of COVID-19, the Iraqi Security Forces have suspended all training. As a result, the Coalition will temporarily return some of its training-focused forces to their own countries in the coming days and weeks. The Coalition remains committed to the lasting defeat of ISIS through our partnership with the ISF, and as the situation permits, we will resume our support to Iraqi training."
The return of some forces may be due to the decision in European countries to prepare the military for deployment at home due to the crises. Most European countries have small armies and they may need these forces. Germany and the UK are two examples. The UK has brought the army home as coronavirus concerns grow. Germany is also mobilizing forces at home.
Who will remain? “The Coalition will retain key military personnel on some Iraqi bases, to ensure that the Government of Iraq and our interests are appropriately supported. We remain partnered and collaborate closely with Iraqi Security Forces at headquarters, for joint base security, tactical information sharing, and operations against Daesh,” the coalition statement notes.
The statement points out that it has been nearly a year since ISIS was defeated in Baghouz in Syria near the Iraqi border. The Qaim crossing was opened with Iraq in late September. After rocket attacks on a base earlier this month, there were airstrikes against an Iranian base near Albukamal in Syria, which is across the border from Qaim.
The US has been dealing with Iranian threats in Iraq. After US airstrikes on Kataib Hezbollah in December, there were protests at the US embassy in Baghdad. The US then killed IRGC leader Qasem Soleimani and Kataib Hezbollah head Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Iran responded on January 8 with a ballistic missile attack on the Ayn al-Assad base where US forces are located. Since then, the Washington has sought to bring Patriot air defense systems to protect US forces.
There are questions about when they will arrive and also about how to defend US forces from the other, smaller rocket attacks which occur every week. These concerns are growing. David Schenker, Assistant Secretary Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs said on March 19 that Kataib Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies continue to target US facilities.
Pro-Iranian groups, such as Hadi al-Amiri of the Badr Organization, as well as Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have called for US forces to leave Iraq. Iran's neighbor lacks a prime minister; a new prime minister-designate was appointed this week. Without a prime minister – and with an oil crisis, coronavirus, Iranian proxies, social protests and ISIS threats – Iraq is at the top of a volcano of instability.


Tags Iran Iraq