US military resumes counter-Islamic State operations in Iraq
WASHINGTON, DC – The U.S. military is resuming operations against Islamic State militants in Iraq and is working to soon restart training Iraqi forces, U.S. officials said Wednesday, despite deep divisions over the American drone strike that killed an senior Iranian commander in Baghdad and the resulting missile attacks by Iran on Iraqi bases.
One official said some joint operations between the U.S. 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 U.S. launched a drone strike near Baghdad's international airport on Jan. 3 that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. The Parliament later voted to expel U.S. forces from the country and Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi asked Washington to work out a road map for a troop withdrawal. The U.S. flatly rejected that request and has not moved to pull the more than 5,000 troops out.
Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss decisions not yet made public.
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 U.S. strike that killed Soleimani 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 Mobilization Forces. And thousands of anti-government protesters turned out in Baghdad and southern Iraq, with many calling for both the U.S. and Iran to leave their country.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, dismissed the calls for American troops to leave, saying the forces are critical to the fight against the Islamic State group.
“We are happy to continue the conversation with the Iraqis about what the right structure is," 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 one American contractor. The U.S. 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.
U.S. officials have said they believe Iraq is also interested in resuming the training, which has been going on since 2015, after IS 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.
The New York Times first reported the resumption of joint military operations.
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