Baghdad’s Green Zone attacked, Us-led forces leave second base
US embassy says it was drawing down staff ‘due to a combination of security conditions and restricted travel options as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic’
QAYYARAH AIR BASE: The Us-led coalition on Thursday started pulling out of a second base in Iraq, in line with a planned drawdown of troops, hours after two rockets hit inside Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone.
The attack in the Iraqi capital, the seat of government and home to the American embassy, was the first following a brief lull in violence from earlier this month. Iraqi officials also said the US renewed a sanctions waiver enabling Iraq to import crucial gas and electricity from Iran, but with a shorter deadline.
France said late on Wednesday that it will pull out all of its military forces from Iraq, citing the need for French forces to help fight the new coronavirus at home. Caggins said, however, that only French trainers had gone home over coronavirus fears and that France continues to provide advisers and air support.
“We think in some time, maybe some weeks, the French trainers will come back,” he said.
Thursday morning’s attack came as a stateimposed curfew to contain the spread of the new coronavirus was extended for a second time until April 11, according to an Iraqi cabinet statement. The effective lockdown prohibits large public gatherings and has shuttered all businesses except essential ones like pharmacies and supermarkets.
The pullout from the Qayyarah airfield in northern Iraq is in line with plans to withdraw from bases across Iraq and consolidate coalition forces in Baghdad and at Ain Al Asad Air Base in the country’s western desert. The plan has been in the works since late last year, a senior coalition military official said last week, and accelerated when Iraqi forces proved they were capable of facing the threat from Daesh with limited coalition assistance.
Coalition spokesman Myles Caggins said several hundred troops would depart the Qayyarah base in the coming days and that $1 million worth of property would be transferred to the Iraqi government at the handover ceremony. Last week, coalition troops withdrew from the Al Qaim base on the border with Syria.
“Our partnership continues with the Iraqi security forces, but in the future you will see less coalition troops in fewer places with fewer bases,” said Caggins.
In the Green Zone attack, the two projectiles struck near the Baghdad Operations Command, which coordinates Iraq’s police and military forces, the military statement said. The command center is a few hundred metres away from the US embassy, which is a regular target of rocket attacks.
There were no casualties, according to an Iraqi security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Two rockets slammed into the Iraqi capital’s highsecurity Green Zone early Thursday, hours before Us-led forces were set to pull out of a second base in the country.
Before dawn on Thursday, two rockets punched into an empty square near an Iraqi security headquarters in the Green Zone, where government buildings and foreign embassies are based, Iraqi security forces said in a statement.
An Iraqi security source said the intended target appeared to be the US embassy, a sprawling compound a few hundred metres further south on the banks of the Tigris.
There were no reports of casualties, but other attacks have been deadly.
On Thursday, around 800 troops were set to leave the northern Qayyarah air base, used in 2016 and 2017 to help plan the fight against the Daesh militant group in the nearby city of Mosul.
“Today the coalition transferred Qayyarah airbase to the full control of the Iraqi security forces,” Myles Caggins, a coalition spokesman, said.
“The coalition had a small area inside the base and we will have several hundred troops departing this base and eventually leaving Iraq,” Caggins said.
The departing forces include US and French troops as well as civilian contractors, according to a coalition statement.
In the coming weeks, they will also leave an expansive base in Kirkuk.
In online videos set to music, masked men carrying weapons rail against the “American Satan” and pledge to avenge “victims” of US air strikes on Iraqi forces.
The coalition, however, expects the group is an amalgamation of more well-known, anti-us groups.
“It’s the same old actors, and they’re organising themselves slightly differently,” a senior coalition official told reporters.
The US embassy on Thursday also said it was drawing down staff “due to a combination of security conditions and restricted travel options as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.”
At least 36 Iraqis have died from the respiratory illness and more than 380 other cases have been confirmed, according to the latest toll from Iraqi authorities.
But there are fears the real number of sufferers is much higher, as only around 2,000 of Iraq’s 40 million people have been tested.
A spike in cases could overwhelm the country’s dilapidated health system, ravaged by years of conflict and slim investment by government authorities.
Some 7,500 foreign troops are in Iraq as part of the Us-led coalition helping local troops fight militant remnants, but those numbers are being significantly drawn down this month.
The alliance is temporarily bringing some trainers home as a precautionary measure against the coronavirus pandemic and is also leaving some Iraqi bases altogether.
Those bases and foreign embassies, particularly the American mission, have been targeted in more than two dozen rocket strikes since late October.
The attacks, which the US has blamed on an Iran-backed armed group, have prompted fears of a proxy war on Iraqi soil.
Earlier this month, two US military personnel and a British soldier were killed in a rocket attack on Taji airbase north of Baghdad, that was hit again two days later.
The 5,200 US troops stationed across Iraqi bases make up the bulk of the coalition force helping hunt down Daesh militant group sleeper cells across the country.
Iraq declared Daesh defeated in late 2017, and the coalition is now implementing plans developed last year to consolidate its troop presence across the country. Around 300 coalition troops left the western Qaim base in mid-march, handing it over in full to Iraqi troops.
Rockets have rained down on both Qayyarah and Kirkuk in recent months, with one late December attack killing a US contractor stationed in Kirkuk.
The US has blamed those attacks on Kataeb Hizbollah, an Iran-backed group within the Hashed Al Shaabi military network.
The Hashed has been formally integrated into the Iraqi state’s security forces but more hardline groups continue to operate independently.
This month’s attacks, however, have been claimed by a previously unknown group identifying itself as Usbat Al Thaereen (League of the Revolutionaries).
↑ US army hands over security to Iraqi Security Forces at Qayyarah Airfield in Mosul on Thursday.