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US-led coalition troops pull out of base in western Iraq

BAGHDAD – Troops from the U.S.-led coalition pulled out from a base in western Iraq on Thursday as part of a planned drawdown, Iraqi and coalition officials said, while training activities by the coalition were suspended amid concerns about the coronavirus.

Coalition forces withdrew from al-Qaim on the Iraq-Syria border, with others planned across Iraq in the coming weeks. The plan was in the works since late last year, a senior coalition military official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“The withdrawal was agreed between the Iraqi government and the coalition forces,” said Brig. Tahseen al-Khafaji, who was at a withdrawal ceremony. Another senior Iraqi military official said he expected the coalition to leave two bases in northern Iraq in the coming weeks, including Qayara south of Mosul and K1, in the province of Kirkuk.

The officials who spoke on condition of anonymity did so in line with regulations.

There are about 7,500 coalition troops in Iraq assisting and providing training to their Iraqi security counterparts to fight the Islamic State group.

The drawdown comes amid an uptick in rocket attacks targeting Iraqi military bases hosting U.S. troops. Three separate attacks in the span of a week struck Camp Taji and Basmaya bases, killing three coalition servicemen including two Americans. The coalition official said the attacks, believed to be carried out by Iran-backed militia groups, did not factor into the decision to pull out.

Iraq's military has also paused training activities with the coalition because of concerns about the coronavirus, the coalition official said.

Iraq is taking measures to contain the spread of the virus by prohibiting large public gatherings, implementing a curfew in the capital and suspending airline flights. According to the Health Ministry, Iraq has 177 confirmed cases and 12 people have died from it.

“The Iraqis have ceased training activity as you might expect in the current circumstances because they aren’t gathering people together,” a senior coalition military official said at a briefing. Training stopped because of the “health risks associated with it,” the official said.

The decision to reduce the coalition's footprint in Iraq was conceived in December, the coalition official said, before U.S.-Iraq tensions soared following the Jan. 3 Washington-directed strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassim Soleimani outside Baghdad airport and prompted lawmakers to approve a nonbinding resolution that U.S. troops should leave the country.

Fraught political relations led to a pause in joint operations between the coalition and Iraqi security forces. At that time, the senior coalition official said, Iraq showed it was capable of preventing an IS resurgence by conducting operations alone and delivering training.

That affirmed plans from December to reduce the coalition presence across Iraq and limit assistance to high-level capabilities that Iraqi security forces lack, such as surveillance and air support, the coalition official said.

“The bottom line is we are going to focus our efforts on supporting the Iraqi security forces and their efforts against Daesh from fewer bases with fewer people," the official said, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

“We are not saying that Daesh is finished. They do still pose a threat, but the majority of that threat is contained and can be contained by the ISF," the official added, referring to the Iraqi security forces.