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’

Gulf Today - - Front Page -

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).

Reuters

↑ US army hands over se­cu­rity to Iraqi Se­cu­rity Forces at Qay­yarah Air­field in Mo­sul on Thurs­day.

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