[Written with Damon Wake in Brussels and published here January 29, 2020]
Baghdad (AFP) – Iraq is considering a larger role for NATO at the expense of the US-led coalition, Iraqi and Western officials told AFP, after an American drone strike on Baghdad that sparked outrage.
The January 3 strike which killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and a top Iraqi commander was condemned by Baghdad as a breach of its sovereignty and of the coalition’s mandate, which focuses on fighting the Islamic State (IS) group.
Iraq’s parliament swiftly voted in favour of ousting all foreign troops — including the 5,200 US soldiers — and the coalition’s anti-IS operations were indefinitely suspended.
Fearing a swift withdrawal could be destabilising, Iraqi and Western officials have begun discussing changes to the coalition’s role, according to local officials and diplomats.
“We are talking to the coalition countries — France, the UK, Canada — about a range of scenarios,” said Abdelkarim Khalaf, spokesman for Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.
“The essential thing is that no combat troops are present and our airspace is no longer used,” Khalaf told AFP.
Two Western officials said the premier had asked them to “draft some options” on a path forward for the coalition.
These options had been submitted directly to the premier.
They included a coalition not led by the US, an amended mandate with limits to coalition activities or an expanded role for NATO’s separate mission in Iraq.
The Canadian-led NATO mission was set up in 2018 and has around 500 forces training Iraqi troops, although its operations have also been on hold since the US strike.
By comparison, the US-led coalition established in 2014 has up to 8,000 troops in Iraq, the bulk of them American forces.
Khalaf told AFP that a larger role for NATO was one of several options being discussed.
– A compromise ahead –
One of the Western officials said “the NATO option” has won initial nods of approval from the prime minister, the military and even anti-US elements of the powerful Hashed al-Shaabi military network.
“I expect it will end with some sort of compromise — a smaller presence under a different title,” he said.
“The Americans will still be able to fight IS and the Iraqis can claim they kicked (the US) out.”
The various options are expected to be laid out at a meeting Wednesday between Iraq and NATO in Amman and again next month by NATO’s defence ministers.
“But there is recognition among the Europeans that there needs to be US buy-in to whatever happens next,” the Western official said.
Following parliament’s vote, Abdel Mahdi invited the US to send a delegation to Baghdad to discuss a withdrawal, but the State Department declined.
US President Donald Trump himself has said he wants NATO to play a larger role in the region.
His special envoy to the coalition, James Jeffrey, hinted at a shift last week although he said talks were in “a very early stage”.
“So there may be a shift between -– at some point, hypothetically –- between the number of forces under the NATO rubric and the number of forces under the coalition,” he told reporters on January 23.
NATO, whose mandate in Iraq is renewed yearly, has insisted any broader role would only involve training and an official from the alliance said there was “no discussion” of a combat role.
“There have been discussions between allies, and a lot of contact between NATO and the government of Iraq in the last couple of weeks,” a NATO official told AFP.
– ‘It’s a trial run’ –
Since Iraq declared IS defeated in late 2017, coalition forces have focused on conducting air strikes and surveillance to rout jihadist sleeper cells.
Beginning last year, the coalition prepared plans for a troop drawdown in Iraq, two senior US defence officials said, adding that a smaller footprint would “absolutely” still be able to keep pressure on IS.
It was forced to “speed up that plan” in the wake of escalating Iran-US tensions, one of the officials said.
Since October, nearly 20 rocket attacks have targeted the US embassy in Baghdad or Iraqi bases hosting American forces, killing one US contractor and an Iraqi soldier.
While no one has claimed responsibility, Washington has blamed Iran-aligned factions.
Both the coalition and NATO paused operations and pulled hundreds of personnel from bases across Iraq earlier this month.
Iraqi forces have filled the gap left by the force relocation, conducting surveillance missions and air strikes on their own after years of the coalition taking the lead.
“It’s a de facto downsizing. It’s a trial run,” the first US official said.
“That’s ultimately what we’ve been striving for. We’re looking at what it would be like if we weren’t here.”