NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg holds a press conference on February 15, 2021, ahead of the meetings of NATO Defence Ministers at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
WASHINGTON – NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced Thursday that the 30-member alliance will expand its security training mission in Iraq in order to prevent the war-torn country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.
“The size of our mission will increase from 500 personnel to around 4,000 and training activities will now include more Iraqi security institutions and areas beyond Baghdad,” Stoltenberg told reporters at the conclusion of a two-day virtual NATO defense ministers meeting.
“Our presence is conditions-based and increases in troop numbers will be incremental,” he said, adding that the request for an expanded mission was requested by the Iraqi government.
Earlier in the week, a senior Defense official told reporters ahead of the NATO meeting that the Pentagon was “enthusiastic about and welcomes NATO’s increased focus on Iraq.” The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, would not disclose whether the U.S. military was prepared to contribute more troops to the training mission in Iraq.
The United States has 2,500 troops in Iraq.
“ISIS still operates in Iraq and we need to make sure they’re not able to return,” Stoltenberg said Thursday, adding that the alliance has seen a slight uptick in attacks.
The decision to expand NATO’s footprint in Iraq comes on the heels of a deadly rocket attack in the city of Irbil.
A worker cleans shattered glass on February 16, 2021 outside a damaged shop following a rocket attack the previous night in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdish autonomous region.
Safin Hamed | AFP | Getty Images
The Monday attack claimed the life of one civilian contractor and injured nine others, including a U.S. service member, according to U.S. Army Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the coalition fighting ISIS.
A Shia group named Awliya Al Dam claimed responsibility for the attack and is believed to be a front for an Iranian-backed militia group. The White House, Pentagon and State Department have not publicly confirmed who is behind the attack.
The State Department vowed on Wednesday to impose consequences on those responsible but gave few details.
“We’re not going to preview a response, but it is fair to say that there will be consequences for any group responsible for this attack,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters during a press briefing.
“Any response we take will be in full coordination with the government of Iraq and with our coalition partners as well,” he added.
A day after the attack, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House was “outraged” by the violence in Iraq.
Psaki also said the Biden administration was working with partners in the region to carry out an investigation of the attack.