US-led coalition transfers second military base to Iraqi forces
US forces formally handed over control of Qayyarah Airfield West (Q-West) to the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on Thursday as part of the ongoing coalition drawdown in Iraq.
This is the second base transfer this month after US troops pulled out of al-Qaim in Anbar, near the Syrian border.
Baghdad invited the international coalition to intervene in Iraq in 2014 when the Islamic State group (ISIS) seized control of vast areas of northern Iraq and neighboring Syria.
Now foreign militaries are drawing down their presence in Iraq and handing over responsibility to local forces.
“Today marks another milestone for the anti-ISIS international military coalition and our Iraqi Security Forces partners,” said Brig. Gen. Vincent Barker, the coalition’s director of sustainment, in a statement seen by Rudaw.
“Today’s transfer was coordinated with the Government of Iraq and is possible thanks to the efforts and successes of our ISF partners,” he said.
“The coalition troops will depart Q-West base after the completion of equipment transfers to Iraqi Security Forces, in the coming days.”
Qayyarah military air base is located 60km south of Mosul in Nineveh province.
“The Qayyarah base served as a strategic launching point for the ISF and coalition during the Battle of Mosul,” Barker said.
“The base serves as a hub for the Iraqi Air Force, who continue to deliver lethal strikes on Daesh bed down locations,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Last week Maj. Gen. Tahsin Khafaji, spokesman for Iraq’s Joint Operation Command, confirmed US forces had officially handed over command of al-Qaim to the ISF.
Al-Qaim in Iraq’s Anbar province, west of Baghdad, has been used by US-led coalition troops since 2017 to train and advise Iraqi forces to combat ISIS remnants and sleeper cells.
It was also used to conduct air operations against the jihadists in their last territorial holdout of Baghouz, eastern Syria, in early 2019.
There are roughly 5,000 US troops stationed in Iraq advising and assisting Iraqi and Kurdish forces under the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR).
Although some foreign troops are being withdrawn from Iraq in recent days, it is not yet clear where remaining units will be relocated.
“As a result of the ISF’s success in their fight against ISIS, and in conjunction with our partner forces and the Government of Iraq, CJTF-OIR will relocate and consolidate personnel and equipment from several Iraqi bases throughout 2020,” the coalition statement said.
US forces are expected to soon withdraw from Kirkuk’s K1 airbase, where elite US and Iraqi troops are stationed.
The US-led coalition said late last week it is adjusting its positions in Iraq in response to the coronavirus pandemic and to reflect its “success” in the campaign to defeat ISIS.
“We anticipate the coalition supporting the Iraqi Security Forces from fewer bases with fewer people,” the coalition said in a statement Friday.
Although the group lost all of its urban strongholds in Iraq in late 2017 and in Syria in early 2019, ISIS remnants and sleeper cells continue to launch attacks against military and civilian targets in the disputed territories between federal Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.
The coalition believes ISIS has been degraded to such a point that foreign troops are able to reduce their commitments in Iraq and hand over to local forces. This is despite the death of two US soldiers in a recent anti-ISIS operation in Makhmour.
The presence of US troops in Iraq has always been contentious for Shiite parties and Iran-backed Shiite paramilitias, who have repeatedly demanded a full US withdrawal.
Rocket attacks targeting the US diplomatic mission in Baghdad and Iraqi bases hosting US troops have increased in recent months. Washington believes Iran-backed militias are responsible.
Demands to expel US forces grew in early 2020 after Iranian General Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia chief Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis were assassinated in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport on January 3.
Iran responded to the assassination by firing a barrage of ballistic missiles at Iraqi bases hosting US forces on January 8.
No Americans were killed in the retaliatory strikes, but more than a hundred US personnel reportedly suffered traumatic brain injury.
At the time, the US and Iran appeared to be on the brink of war, potentially turning Iraq into a battlefield. Source