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NATO Announces Plan To Increase Presence In Iraq

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Rockets landed this week on a base used by American forces in Iraq. The rocket strikes killed a contractor and injured other people, including an American service member. U.S. forces remain in Iraq despite efforts in the past year to push them out. And now U.S. allies in NATO say they want to expand their presence. Here's Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS STOLTENBERG: Today, we decided to expand NATO's training mission in Iraq to support the Iraqi forces as they fight terrorism and ensure that ISIS does not return.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alice Fordham has been reporting from Baghdad. Hey there, Alice.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how is this NATO deployment supposed to work?

FORDHAM: Well, presently what we have is about 500 NATO forces at the Ministry of Defense, mainly doing institutional reform, trying to make the Ministry of Defense work better. That's going to go up to about 4,000 troops. Jens Stoltenberg says they'll expand out of Baghdad. They'll do more training. So it's a significant ramping up. And when I asked an Iraqi official, who wouldn't speak on the record, he said it's no coincidence the NATO mission is ramping up when the American one is dwindling after President Trump brought the numbers right down. He said it's politically more acceptable to have an international NATO force here because the U.S.-led coalition has become controversial and politically unpopular.

INSKEEP: In what way?

FORDHAM: Well, American forces had left Iraq, but they came back a few years ago under the Obama administration to help fight the war against ISIS at the request of the Iraqi government. But over the course of the Trump administration, Iraq increasingly became the place where tensions between Iran and the U.S. played out, with the climax being an American drone strike in Baghdad last January, which killed a powerful Iranian general. Now, not all Iraqis love Iran, but the two have very strong ties. They share a long border. There are huge trade interests, and Iran backs powerful militias here, too. So when I spoke with Iraqi analyst Sajad Jiyad, he said the U.S. has been effectively forcing Iraq to choose between Iran and America.

SAJAD JIYAD: The reality is we have to have good ties with Iran. It's something we cannot forgo. We may be, if push comes to shove, be able to forgo ties with the U.S. We don't want to, but there's nothing we can do with regards to Iran because it's our neighbor.

FORDHAM: So if that's how the Trump administration left things in Iraq, the Biden administration has some decisions to make about its relationship here.

INSKEEP: So is this - does this all make a serious challenge for the new Biden administration?

FORDHAM: Well, look, keeping American forces in Iraq is challenging for sure. There are good reasons to keep them here. They're helping Iraqi counterterror efforts against ISIS. But things happen like this attack on American forces on Monday, which officials here say was probably linked to Iran. So people are waiting to see what the administration's response is going to be to that.

INSKEEP: Yeah, absolutely. They're - of course, past strikes have brought the U.S. and Iran closer to direct conflict. Where does the expanded NATO presence fit into that?

FORDHAM: What Iraqi officials are hinting at is that an expanded NATO role could mean the American-led coalition is no longer necessary. But you have to remember, NATO isn't currently involved in combat operations, whereas the Americans are directly helping. So although the NATO force might provide a kind of extra option, as things stand, the dilemma will still exist for the U.S. about whether they should stay in Iraq and whether they can persuade Iraqi decision-makers and maybe Iran that they want them there.

INSKEEP: Alice, thanks for your reporting.

FORDHAM: Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: NPR's Alice Fordham in Baghdad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.