Nato chief: Iraq gives permission for training mission

Alliance poised to expand its role in the Middle East

epa08215100 NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the start of a NATO defence ministers meeting at NATO headquarter in Brussels, Belgium, 13 February 2020.  EPA/STEPHANIE LECOCQ
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The Iraqi government has granted Nato permission to stay in the country and continue its training mission, said the alliance’s Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg.

Mr Stoltenberg confirmed the organisation’s continued roll in Iraq as member nations’ defence ministers met in Brussels.

“The government of Iraq has confirmed to us their desire for a continuation of the Nato training, advising and capacity-building activities for the Iraqi armed forces,” he said.

“We will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome."

The permission is a reversal by the Iraqi government, which had demanded all foreign troops be removed from its territory after the killing of Iranian general Qassem Suleimani near Baghdad in January.

The stage has been set for Nato to agree to expand its advisory and training role in Iraq, which was urged by the US.

Under the initiative, those training Iraqi troops as part of the global coalition against ISIS will effectively come under the Nato banner.

The alliance has not provided details about how many of its troops might be added to the advisory mission.

But Mr Stoltenberg is expected to make further announcements after the Nato ministerial meeting on Friday if the mission is approved.

Officials have said that “a couple of hundred” troops would change roles.

The first step would be to expand the training to three more bases in central Iraq.

A second step, possibly over summer, would hand to the mission more activities that are being handled by the coalition.

After the Suleimani killing and the increased tension it caused with Tehran, US demands over Nato engagement in the Middle East became more urgent, even if ill-defined.

As Iranian retaliation was expected, US President Donald Trump called on Nato to do more in the region.

Before the ministerial summit, Kay Bailey Hutchison, the US ambassador to Nato, said the change would please the White House.