NATO willing to restart Canadian-led training mission in Iraq when security situation improves

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OTTAWA—NATO says it’s willing to resume the Canadian-led training mission in Iraq but concedes its forces — there at the invitation of the Iraqi government — face an uncertain future as the fall-out from the U.S. strike on an Iranian general roils the region.

That mission was suspended in the wake of Friday’s airstrike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whom U.S. President Donald Trump said was responsible for terror attacks that have killed hundreds.

Members of the military alliance met Monday at NATO headquarters in Brussels to consider the future of the Iraq mission in the face of rising regional tensions that have put Western soldiers and diplomats in the crosshairs.

“In everything that we do, the safety of our personnel is paramount. As such, we have for the time being suspended our training on the ground and are taking all precautions necessary to protect our people,” Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, told reporters following the meeting.

“We are keeping the situation under close review and we remain in close contact with the Iraq authorities. NATO is prepared to continue our training and capacity building when the situation permits,” he said.

NATO’s mission role to train local Iraqi forces is currently led by Canadian Maj.-Gen. Jennie Carnigan. Canada has authorized the deployment of 850 personnel for this mission along with its own efforts to advise and assist security forces in the country to beat Islamic State insurgents.

But those training efforts on are hold after Friday’s targeted attack that was carried out as Soleimani was leaving Baghdad airport. Iran is vowing to retaliate and Iraqi lawmakers on Sunday passed a resolution seeking the exit of American and allied forces who have been in Iraq on the mission to combat ISIS.

A photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister's Press Office shows the burning wreckage of a vehicle following an American drone strike outside the Baghdad airport early on Friday. Qasem Soleimani, the powerful and shadowy spymaster at the head of Iran's security machinery, was killed in the drone strike.
A photo released by the Iraqi Prime Minister’s Press Office shows the burning wreckage of a vehicle following an American drone strike outside the Baghdad airport early on Friday. Qasem Soleimani, the powerful and shadowy spymaster at the head of Iran’s security machinery, was killed in the drone strike.NYT

Stoltenberg said that allies have long expressed concerns about Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the Middle East, and pointed to a recent attack on a Saudi oil facility and the shooting down of a U.S. drone.

“We agree that Iran must never acquire a nuclear weapon. We share concerns about Iran’s missile tests and we are united in condemning Iran’s support for a variety of different terrorist groups,” he said.

“At the meeting today, allies called for restraint and de-escalation. A new conflict would be in no one’s interest. Iran must refrain from further violence and provocations,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting, Stoltenberg said there was “very strong” support for the NATO training mission, seen as a critical part of the global efforts to combat ISIS, an effort that now appears in limbo because of the current crisis.

“The best weapons we have in the fight against international terrorism is to train local forces, build local capacity and that’s exactly what the coalition is doing,” he said.

“We are there by invitation by the Iraqi authorities. We have suspended our training mission now because of the security situation on the ground but we are ready to restart the training when the situation on the ground makes that possible,” he said.

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