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US-led coalition to withdraw hundreds of troops from smaller bases in Iraq

In a May, 2018 photo, French soldiers assigned to Task Force Wagram conduct a fire mission in support of Operation Roundup, during the night in Al Qaim, Iraq.

ZAKIA GRAY/U.S. ARMY

By LOUISA LOVELUCK | The Washington Post | Published: March 16, 2020

LONDON — The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS said Monday it will move hundreds of troops out of bases in Iraq, with most redeployed to other locations in the country, as threats from the militants wane and risks to foreign troops elsewhere in Iraq increase.

The coalition said troops would be leaving the al-Qaim base in western Iraq within days and that they would soon move out of the northern K1 and Key West bases too, with most heading to larger bases in Iraq and others to Syria or Kuwait.

The move, officials said, has been planned for months and is not the result of a wave of attacks by Iran-backed militia groups, which have killed and wounded almost two dozen coalition troops in recent weeks.

"As a result of the success of Iraqi Security Forces in their fight against ISIS, the Coalition is repositioning troops from a few smaller bases," Col. Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the anti-ISIS mission. "These bases remain under Iraqi control and we will continue our advising partnership for the permanent defeat of Daesh from other Iraqi military bases," he said, using an Arabic nickname for the militants.

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said that planning for the move began in the fall, after military officials judged that the threat from Islamic State forces had diminished across swaths of Iraq.

But as danger from the militants had waned, tensions with Iran had escalated, and the more than 5,000 U.S. troops serving in Iraq as part of the anti-Islamic State coalition are now in the crosshairs of Iraqi militia groups backed by Tehran. Militia rocket strikes on bases hosting coalition troops have become a regular occurrence and already brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war once this year.

Last week in Iraq, the U.S. launched its second wave of airstrikes targeting the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group in the space of three months, after two American and one British servicemen were killed in suspected militia rocket attacks on Camp Taji, an Iraqi military base north of Baghdad.

The U.S. Defense Department said that airstrikes had targeted five weapons storage facilities linked to the Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah group, to "degrade" its ability to launch future strikes. But a day later, Camp Taji was hit by another salvo of rockets, wounding two Iraqi and three U.S. servicemen.

A newly-announced group calling itself Usbat al-Thairen, or the League of Revolutionaries, on Sunday claimed responsibility for the strike. "We rejoice in the fear that we have struck in the chests of the occupying enemy as a result of our quality operations," the group said in a video statement circulated on Telegram. "This operation is only the beginning and the end is soon to come."

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed the attacks with Iraq's Prime Minister, Adel Abdul-Mahdi during a phone call Sunday, according to a statement. "Secretary Pompeo underscored that the groups responsible for these attacks must be held accountable," it said, adding that the U.S. would "not tolerate attacks and threats to American lives."

The U.S.-led coalition mission in Iraq began in 2014 after Islamic State militants swept across a third of the country and seized swaths of neighboring Syria as well. Six years on, the extremist group has been reduced to hiding out across rugged terrain on the periphery of state control in Iraq and Syria.

Two members of a Marines Special Operations Team were killed earlier this month during an operation targeting what officials described as an Islamic State mountain hideout.
 

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