Group to focus on protecting its forces after US killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani
Dan Sabbagh Defence and security editor – The Guardian
Iraqi MPs have passed a motion calling for the expulsion of US troops, but they are unlikely to be forced to leave. Photograph: Handout/Reuters
The international coalition fighting Islamic State has suspended operations against the terrorist group so its forces can concentrate on protecting US, UK and other troops at bases in Iraq following the killing of Qassem Suleimani.
The announcement came minutes before the Iraqi parliament passed a motion calling for the expulsion of US troops, in the aftermath of the assassination by the US of the Iranian general and the leader of Iraq’s Hezbollah militia outside Baghdad airport on Friday.
A statement on Sunday from Operation Inherent Resolve said the US-led coalition was “fully committed” to protecting its bases in the light of “repeated rocket attacks” from pro-Iranian militias over the past two months.
“This has limited our capacity to conduct training with partners and to support their operations against Daesh [Isis], and we have therefore paused these activities, subject to continuous review,” the coalition said.
There have been many warnings that the assassination of Suleimani would compromise the final stages of the fight against Isis, which has been forced to yield all its territory by local ground forces in Iraq and Syria with the help of coalition air power, training and other military support.
There are an estimated 6,000 US troops based in Iraq, whose primary function had been helping train the Iraqi military in anti-Isis operations, but their presence has become controversial.
There is considerable unhappiness in Iraq that Donald Trump authorised the unannounced drone strike on Suleimani and others on Iraqi soil. But few believe the US will be forced to remove its forces.
The Iraqi parliament resolution specifically calls for ending an agreement under which the US sent troops to Iraq more than four years ago to help in the fight against Isis. It was backed by most Shia members, who hold a majority of seats, but many Sunni and Kurdish legislators who oppose abolishing the deal did not attend the vote.
Another 400 British troops are also stationed in Iraq, often located with US and other coalition forces, and are affected by the decision to halt training and support activities, UK sources confirmed.
Hostility to US troops in Iraq has increased in recent weeks, as tensions between Washington and Tehran have ratcheted up. Late last year, a US civilian contractor was killed and several service personnel injured in a rocket attack on a base in Kirkuk.
Since the killing of Suleimani, the US has said it will deploy an additional 3,500 troops in the Middle East to deter Iran from an aggressive response. They are expected to be based in Kuwait.
Operation Inherent Resolve said it hoped it could eventually resume counter-Isis activities. “We remain ready to return our full attention and efforts back to our shared goal of ensuring the lasting defeat of Daesh,” the coalition’s statement concluded.