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Nato increases troop numbers in Iraq to combat threat from Islamic State

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the increase, from 500 to 4,000, is being organised alongside Iraqi government 
Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg attends a defence ministers meeting in Brussels on 13 February to address key issues (AFP/File photo)

Nato is preparing to significantly increase troop numbers in Iraq to combat the growing threat from the Islamic State (IS) group, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said.

"We decided to expand Nato's training mission in Iraq to support the Iraqi forces as they fight terrorism and ensure that ISIS does not return," Stoltenberg said during a news conference on Thursday following a meeting of Nato defence ministers. 

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At least 11 fighters from Iraq's state-sponsored Hashd al-Shaabi force were killed in an ambush by IS north of the capital late last month.

During Thursday's news conference, the secretary general stressed that Nato's expanded mission comes "at the request of the Iraqi government" and that "it is carried out with full respect for Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity". 

He also noted that training activities will now include more Iraqi security institutions and areas beyond Baghdad. 

Nato has had a non-combat, "train-and-advise" mission in Iraq since October 2018. Plans to expand the programme have been in the works for some time but were delayed in part because of the Covid-19 pandemic and also due to security concerns after the US killed top Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in January 2020, enflaming regional tensions. 

The decision comes after several meetings with defence ministers during the past week, as well as talks between Stoltenberg and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. 

Currently, Nato forces only work with members of the Iraqi security institutions and forces who are under the direct control of the Iraqi government.

The expanded mission will likely take over some of the training activities carried out by the US-led coalition against IS, diplomats with knowledge of the situation told the Reuters news agency earlier this week.

The diplomats said the allied mission, involving allies including Britain, Turkey and Denmark and led by a Danish commander, is seen as more acceptable to Iraqis than a US training force. 

Armed groups aligned with Iran have launched attacks against US forces in Iraq in recent weeks, including deadly rocket fire on Monday that hit inside and near a military airbase occupied by the US-led coalition at Erbil international airport, as well as other attacks against the US embassy in Baghdad.