Canadian-led NATO training mission in Iraq suspended amid security concerns after Soleimani assassination

5 January 2020

NATO has suspended training of Iraqi forces to ensure the safety of several hundred mission members amid fears for regional stability after a US air strike in Baghdad on 3 January killed Iranian military commander Qasem Soleimani.

According to Reuters, an alliance spokesman said on 4 January” “The safety of our personnel in Iraq is paramount. We continue to take all precautions necessary. NATO’s mission is continuing, but training activities are temporarily suspended”. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has apparently spoken by phone with US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper since the US attack, but the details of what were said are not known. The US military airstrike was ordered by President Donald Trump without consulting the US Congress, NATO military allies or Iraqi leaders.

The NATO spokesperson said the alliance was monitoring the situation in the region very closely, amid concern that the killing of one of Iran’s most powerful figures could trigger a conflagration in the Middle East. On the 4 January President Trump tweeted that if Iran retaliated the US had identified 52 Iranian sites that would be targeted “very fast and very hard”.

Amid questions about the legal justification for US actions and the absence of any prior notification or discussion with allies, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo chastised allies for “not being helpful” in response to Soleimani’s killing. However, on 5 January, UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab seemingly fell into line saying that Britain is “on the same page” as the US in relation to the assassination.

Soleimani was the architect of Iran's regional policy of mobilizing militias across Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, including in the war against the Islamic State. He was also blamed for attacks on US troops and allies going back decades. The Quds Force he commanded is part of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, reporting to the country's leader Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The Quds Force trains and equips foreign militias, carries out bombings and assassinations, and otherwise uses unconventional methods to expand Iran's military and diplomatic influence. The United States designated the Quds Force a terrorist organization in 2007.

NATO Mission Iraq (NMI), made up of several hundred trainers, advisers and support staff from NATO countries as well as partner countries, Australia, Finland and Sweden. Established in Baghdad in October 2018 after three years of war against the Islamic State, NMI is a non-combat ‘train-and-advise’ mission to help Iraqi security structures and institutions fend off future insurgencies. Its personnel do not deploy alongside Iraqi forces during their operations. NATO’s training activities are carried out at the Iraqi military schools in the Baghdad areas, Taji and Besmaya.

The current commander of the NATO mission is Major General Jennie Carignan of Canada. The Canadian defence minister, Harjit Sajjan, also released a brief statement on 4 January reiterating NATO comments that NMI was being suspended for the protection of those involved. “The NATO mission and Operation IMPACT's mandate remain the same, but all training activities in Iraq are suspended temporarily as we continue to monitor the security environment,” Sajjan said. “We are taking all necessary precautions for the safety and security of our civilian and military personnel”.

Separately, the German military said on the 3 January that the United States and its allies had suspended training of Iraqi forces under a US-led counter-terrorism mission known as Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR) due to the increased threat. OIR, commanded by US Lieutenant General Pat White, was set up in 2014 to counter the threat posed by Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and its mandate now includes follow-on operations to bolster regional stability.