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5th Jul 2020

3,000 troops from 19 EU states in Iraq. Will they stay?

Around 3,000 soldiers from 19 EU states were deployed in Iraq, plus another 200 from 10 EU states stationed under Nato command, as of late 2019, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a global think tank.

With tensions flaring following the killing of general Qassem Suleimani in a US drone attack last week, the EU is scrambling to use diplomacy to de-escalate the brewing conflict and possible ensuing war.

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  • An Italian Army crewmember looks out an NH-90 helicopter as it flies alongside an American UH-60 helicopter during a multinational flight movement near Erbil, Iraq (Photo: 1st Lt. Alison Carr)

Germany - along with a handful of other EU states - has since announced plans to scale down and withdraw their troops in the region, as the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution demanding all foreign troops leave the country.

The Iraqi resolution passed 173 to zero, although 156 MPs boycotted it. And although non-binding, the resolution came on the heels of similar demands first announced by Iraqi prime minister Adil Abdul Mahdi.

A subsequent Iranian missile airstrike on Wednesday (8 January) against Iraqi-based coalition forces, including European ones, has only heightened fears with the EU's foreign policy chief Josep Borrell repeating calls for calm.

"It is in no one's interest to turn up the spiral of violence even further," he had said following the missile strike.

Denmark issued a statement that its forces at Al-Asad air base in western Iraq, which had been hit, were unharmed. Another volley of ballistic missiles had also struck a coalition base in Erbil in the north.

Whatever the blowback, the number of European troops and their eventual possible withdrawal from Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq is likely to cast a long shadow over its stated objective to defeat a possible resurgence of Islamic State militants.

Only a day before Suleimani's funeral procession took place earlier this week, the combined joint task force had joined Iraqi leaders and citizens to celebrate the launch anniversary of the Iraqi army.

But Wednesday's missile strike in Erbil and the Al-Asad air base has only further spooked the international coalition.

Fluctuating numbers

Although such troop figures can fluctuate almost weekly, the snapshot from November provided by IISS suggests around 2,900 European troops are part of Operation Inherent Resolve.

With 600, Italy has the largest military presence on the ground among the Europeans, followed by Spain (500) and France (400).

"What we feared has happened," Italy's foreign minister Luigi Di Maio posted on his Facebook page earlier on Wednesday, noting a new war may boost the proliferation of terrorist cells and new migration flows. Italy has people stationed at both the bases in Iraq.

Spain's acting deputy prime minister Carmen Calvo on Wednesday had told state broadcaster RTVE that the country has since pulled out of some its troops.

"Those who were in riskier positions have left for Kuwait," she said.

France meanwhile says it has no intention to pull out, Reuters reported citing an unnamed government source.

For its part, the US has around 6,000 troops deployed in Iraq amid plans to send in another 3,800 American paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade to the Middle East.

This comes on top of around 4,000 additional troops that may also be sent, according to a media reports citing an anonymous Pentagon source.

A spokesperson at Nato told EUobserver that its current Iraqi training mission consists of several hundred personnel, mostly from Canada, Turkey and Spain.

The IISS figures from late 2019 put the total European troop presence under NATO command, which includes Norway, at around 200 with Spain leading the charge of around 70 soldiers followed by 65 from Poland and 12 from the Netherlands.

On Tuesday, the trans-Atlantic alliance announced it was pulling out some of its troops and personnel. Among them are Croatian and Romania sentries that will now leave the country.

The non-combat mission is separate from the US-led coalition fighting forces at Al-Asad air base and Erbil.

Impact on EU in region

Meanwhile, the European Commission's president Ursula Von der Leyen on Wednesday said the conflict could also have possible consequences for the European Union.

"For example in the areas of transport, energy, or neighbourhood and migration, but also the economic development, the stabilisation and the reconstruction the European Union is doing in these areas," she said, in a statement.

The EU also has personnel and diplomats in a delegation, and a civil assistance mission in Iraq. All will remain in place with no plans to evacuate.

"I can assure you that they are in safety and that there is no proposal to evacuate them at this moment," said Peter Stano, who speaks on behalf of the EU's foreign policy chief Borrell.

Stano told EUobserver there is also no EU military presence in Iraq, noting that in Iran the EU is represented locally via the EU Council's rotating presidency - now held by Croatia.

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