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 ISIS 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.