BRUSSELS – NATO countries are preparing to move more than 200 trainers working with the international force fighting the Islamic State group in Iraq to the military alliance’s own mission there helping to build up the Iraqi army in response to President Donald Trump's demand that U.S. allies do more in the Middle East, senior officials said Tuesday.
The move — essentially a “re-badging” exercise as troops shift from the anti-IS coalition to NATO control — will be high on the agenda Wednesday when NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels to weigh exact troop numbers.
“There are several areas where the training is really overlapping,” U.S. NATO envoy Kay Bailey Hutchison told reporters.
NATO agreed in 2018 to launch a training mission in Iraq involving around 500 troops with the aim of building up the country’s armed forces so they could better combat extremist groups. Only the anti-IS coalition fights extremists.
But the NATO operation was put on hold last month after a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad airport killed Iran’s top general, and the Iraqi government and parliament demanded that foreign troops leave its territory. As tensions mounted, Trump insisted that the alliance should do more in the region.
However, there is little appetite among European allies and Canada to deploy troops, even though the U.S. is by far the biggest and most influential of the 29 NATO member countries.
While she didn't mention numbers involved in the troop swap, Hutchison said that NATO’s plan is to expand its training operation to more Iraqi bases. But officials said that over “a couple of hundred” troops are likely to shift into the NATO training mission and operate out of bases in central Iraq. Overall, the number of troops from NATO countries working in Iraq would stay the same.
Officials are confident that Iraq will soon let the military alliance resume its training mission, particularly after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg held a series of talks with Iraqi and regional leaders.
“We will only stay in Iraq based on an invitation from Iraq,” Stoltenberg said Tuesday, but he underlined that “one of the weapons we have in the fight against terrorism is to train local forces, enabling them to fight terrorism themselves. Prevention is better than intervention.”
Hutchison also said that NATO is set to task military commanders with looking at other ways for the alliance to boost its role in the wider Middle East.