US-led coalition in Iraq drawing down over coronavirus concerns

US-led coalition in Iraq drawing down over coronavirus concerns
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The U.S.-led military coalition in Iraq is withdrawing some troops in part over the coronavirus pandemic, the coalition confirmed Friday.

“The coalition is adjusting our positioning in Iraq for two reasons: long-planned adjustments to reflect success in the campaign against Daesh; and short-term moves to protect the force during the coronavirus pandemic,” the coalition said in a statement, using an alternate name for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

“Looking ahead, we anticipate the coalition supporting the Iraqi Security Forces from fewer bases with fewer people,” it added.

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The coalition previously said it would withdraw from several smaller bases around Iraq, with most of those troops going elsewhere in the country, because of the increasing capabilities of Iraqi forces to fight ISIS on their own. On Tuesday, the coalition held a ceremony to transfer one of the bases, Al Qaim, near the border with Syria, to Iraqi forces.

In addition to those previously planned changes, Iraqi forces have decided to suspend training amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Iraqi Security Forces have suspended all training,” the coalition said in its statement. “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 British Defense Ministry said Thursday some of its troops would be coming home from Iraq because of the pause in training.

The training mission is being paused for 60 days, according to the ministry. The coalition’s statement said it will resume “as the situation permits.”

As of Friday, Iraq has reported 192 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with 13 deaths.

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The drawdown in Iraq is the latest sign of how coronavirus is complicating U.S. war zones. On Thursday, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan announced measures the international coalition there is taking to prevent the spread of the virus, including halting troop rotations in and, in some cases, out of the country.

In Iraq, the coalition said it will keep “key military personnel” at some bases “to ensure 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 statement said.

The changes to the coalition’s posture also come as U.S.-Iran tensions are heating up again, with Iraq as the backdrop.

Last week, a rocket attack the United States blamed on Iranian-backed militia killed two U.S. troops and a British service member at Iraq’s Camp Taji base. The U.S. military retaliated the next day with airstrikes against five of the militia’s weapons storage facilities.

The tit-for-tat between the United States and Iran has led to increased calls in Iraq for a U.S. military withdrawal. After the U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil in January, the Iraqi parliament passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a withdrawal.