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US-led coalition withdraws from sixth Iraqi military base

French members of the US-led coalition officially handed control of a military camp west of Baghdad back to Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) on Tuesday, in the sixth base handover in just three weeks.

The transfer of Abu Ghraib operating base, used by French troops to train and advise Iraqi security forces in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS), was announced in a Iraqi Security Media Cell statement.

“Based on fruitful dialogue between the Iraqi government and the US-led coalition, Iraqi forces today took back control of the camp inside the headquarters of the 6th Division of Iraqi forces in the capital Baghdad, which were used by International Coalition Forces (French) advisors,” the statement reads.

Abu Ghraib’s handover is the latest in a quick succession of transfers of base control to the Iraqi armed forces in recent weeks, following K-1 in Kirkuk, al-Qaim near the Syrian border, Qayyarah in western Iraq, al-Sqoor base inside Nineveh operation command in Mosul, and Al-Taqaddum Air Base in Anbar province.

Coalition spokesman US Colonel Myles Caggins III claimed the transfer was a result of the multinational force’s successful thwarting of ISIS in the region.

“The xfer of @CJTFOIR [US-led coalition] compound at Abu Gharib [sic] is due to @modmiliq [Iraqi Defence Ministry] anti-ISIS success.” Caggins III tweeted on Tuesday.

The French troops based at Abu Ghraib formed part of the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS, an 81-country alliance established as ISIS swept through Syria and  Iraq in 2014. The Coalition has primarily provided air support to Iraqi operations, as well as training and advisory support to Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

Almost 1,000 French military personnel were stationed across the Middle East as part of Operation Chammal, the French component of the anti-ISIS coalition’s operations. Approximately 200 of these troops were stationed within Iraq.

France decided to withdraw all of its military advisors from Iraq on March 25 amid the spread of coronavirus inside the country.

Fears surrounding the pandemic also prompted the Iraqi government’s decision to halt all military training in the country.

While the coalition has repeatedly said the decision to reposition troops was “long-planned” and unrelated to recent attacks on “Iraqi bases hosting coalition troops, or the ongoing COVID-19  situation in Iraq,” the withdrawals follow months of growing tensions between the US and Iran.

A US drone strike on Baghdad airport in January, which killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani and pro-Iran militia commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, prompted a flurry of missile strikes and rocket attacks on bases housing US troops across Iraq.

The Iraqi government has long promised to capture the groups behind the attacks. To date, no one has been held responsible.

In continued pursuit of the groups it holds responsible for attacks on personnel, US military commanders have been ordered to prepare to “destroy” Kataib Hezbollah – a pro-Iran militia in Iraq thought to be behind multiple rocket attacks on US personnel, the New York Times revealed last month.

The US has also deployed Patriot air defense batteries to Ain al-Assad military base in Anbar province and another to Erbil.

In his first televised interview as PM-designate, Adnan al-Zurfi said US-led coalition troops will withdraw half of their troops in Iraq by the end of 2020.

“I talked to the US ambassador and coalition officials in Iraq about a schedule for coalition troop withdrawal from Iraq,” he told state media outlet al-Iraqiya on Sunday night. “Half of the US-led coalition troops will withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2020, while the other half will leave Iraq after we agree on a schedule by the beginning of next year.”

Iraqi caretaker Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi met with the US ambassador to Baghdad on Sunday, and announced the opening of a “strategic dialogue” between the two respective countries.

The office of Abdul-Mahdi tweeted on Sunday that “Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi welcomes the opening of a strategic dialogue between the Iraqi and American governments, in order to achieve their mutual  interests and in light of decisions and developments in Iraq and the  region.” Source