NATO defence ministers agreed today to expand the Canadian-led military training mission in Iraq and take over some of the activities currently being carried out by the anti-Islamic State coalition of allies.
The alliance’s secretary general, Jen Stoltenberg, made the announcement halfway through the two-day meeting in Brussels. Calling it a decision in principle, he cautioned that the details still need to be worked out and approved by the government in Baghdad.
In the aftermath of the Trump administration’s targeted killing of Iranian special forces commander Gen. Qasem Soleimani in January, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding motion calling for the expulsion of foreign troops.
The country’s newly appointed prime minister, Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi, has yet to follow through on the demand and NATO has been hoping it will somehow be exempted from the decision.
“This is in [the Iraqis’] interest. It is in our interest,” Stoltenberg told reporters today following the first day of closed meetings.
“We have to remember what we do there is train the Iraqi forces, to help them, to support them. The aim, of course, is to enable them, to make them better and stronger in the fight against our common enemy ISIS.”
Stoltenberg said he has had several conversations with Allawi about “how to make sure ISIS never returns” and remains hopeful the Iraqi government will support the resumption of training and the proposed transfer of responsibilities from the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition to NATO.
‘Scaling up and doing more’
“We’ve had a very good, constructive dialogue with the Iraqi government and we will continue to do so,” he added. “We are already in Iraq, but are in close consultation with them about the possibility of expanding, scaling up and doing more.”
Stoltenberg said he could not state when the NATO trainers — some of whom were moved out of Iraq in the immediate aftermath of Soleimani’s killing — will be able to get back to work. Their activities were suspended in response to threats of Iranian retaliation.
The training mission was already somewhat constrained prior to the killing because of months of general unrest throughout Iraq, which included street protests over corruption and Iranian influence within the Baghdad government.
It’s also not clear which “activities” would be transferred over to NATO from the anti-ISIS coalition, or whether that would require other countries, including Canada, to bolster their troop commitments.
The secretary-general said he’ll meet in the coming days with coalition leaders to determine what is feasible before presenting an expansion proposal to Allawi’s government.
Canada has approximately 250 soldiers assigned to the NATO mission in Baghdad, providing headquarters services, security and transport for the nations whose trainers are instructing Iraqis in a myriad of military disciplines.
Stoltenberg met with Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan today and also held private sessions with the British and American defence secretaries.