US military resumes operations against ISIS in Iraq

Iraq’s parliament has pushed for the removal of US forces after the killing of Qassem Suleimani

Military vehicles of U.S. soldiers are seen at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, Iraq January 13, 2020. REUTERS/John Davison
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The US military is resuming operations against ISIS militants in Iraq and is working to restart training of Iraqi forces, US officials said on Wednesday.

The move comes despite deep divisions over the American drone strike that killed a senior Iranian commander in Baghdad and the resulting missile attacks by Iran on Iraqi bases housing US forces.

One official said some joint operations between US and Iraqi forces have already begun, but there are not yet as many as before. The official said details are still being worked out to restore the training of Iraqi forces, but that could happen relatively soon.

Relations with Iraq were fractured after the US launched a drone strike near Baghdad’s international airport on January 3 that killed Iranian General Qassem Suleimani.

The Iraqi parliament later voted to expel US forces from the country and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi asked Washington to work out a road map for a troop withdrawal.

The US flatly rejected that request and has not moved to pull the more than 5,000 troops out.

One official said military leaders have discussed the resumption of operations with the Iraqis, but it’s not clear who was involved in those talks or whether Iraqi government leaders are publicly endorsing the move.

Iraqi leaders were angry about the American drone strike and the retaliatory attacks by Iran. Iranian missiles struck Al Asad Air Base last week, and hit near another base, but warnings sounded and no one was killed or injured.

Iraq officials, however, called the US strike that killed Suleimani an unacceptable breach of Iraqi sovereignty. That strike also killed Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iran-backed militias known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces.

Thousands of anti-government protesters turned out in Baghdad and southern Iraq, with many calling for both the US and Iran to leave their country.

US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, dismissed the calls for American troops to leave, saying the forces are critical to the fight against ISIS.

“We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is,” Mr Pompeo said during one White House appearance last week.

Tensions in Iraq had been spiking since late December, when a rocket attack at a base in northern Iraq killed an American contractor. The US blamed Iran-backed fighters and quickly struck back. American airstrikes targeted Iranian-backed militia at five sites in Iraq and Syria, including weapons depots and command and control bases.

Over New Year’s, hundreds of Iran-backed militiamen attacked the highly fortified American embassy compound in Baghdad.

The Pentagon deployed hundreds of additional troops to the region, and scaled back military operations and training inside Iraq.

US officials have said they believe Iraq is also interested in resuming the training, which has been going on since 2015, after ISIS began taking control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. More details, including increased security for U.S. and coalition forces, are still being discussed.