US forces have handed over the international section of a base in the Iraqi oil centre of Kirkuk — the third installation Washington has transferred to the Iraqi army this month — as it shrinks its military footprint in the country to key locations.
The US-led coalition against ISIS said it completed the handover of facilities at the K1 Base in Kirkuk Province to the Iraqi army on Sunday.
Since early March, the US has handed over the international sections of Al Qaim base near the Syrian border and at the Qayyarah base in Nineveh governorate near the city of Mosul. Troops at the Qayyarah base came under fire in November when 17 rockets were launched by pro-Iranian militia in Iraq.
“K1 has served as a critical location for the Coalition, Iraqi Security Forces and counter-terrorism service in the fight to find and destroy ISIS safe havens,” said US Brig Gen Vincent Barker regarding Sunday’s handover.
Areas south of Kirkuk, and north of neighbouring provinces of Diyala, Salahaddin and Nineveh remain hot-beds of ISIS activity.
The stretch of territory is also disputed between the federal Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish region, which has created security gaps benefiting ISIS militants. The coalition’s presence had at times been a mediating presence between the two competing authorities.
A senior coalition official earlier this month claimed ISIS forces weren’t as able to exploit the “security gap” between Iraqi and Kurdish forces as the militants did in the past.
“That doesn’t necessarily mean that Daesh is free to operate in the way that they wish,” said the official, using the Arabic acronym for the ISIS group. “They’re still pretty constrained.”
The move comes after months of rising tensions following the assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad.
US military bases have been targeted by more than two dozen rocket strikes since October 2019.
The attacks, which the US has partly blamed on Kataeb Hezbollah, an Iran-backed group within the Hashed al-Shaabi military network, have prompted fears of a proxy war on Iraqi soil.
The Coalition said in a statement on Sunday that the decision to reposition troops was “long-planned” and “not related to recent attacks against Iraqi bases hosting Coalition troops, or the ongoing Covid-19 situation in Iraq.”
The coalition “will relocate and consolidate personnel and equipment from several Iraqi bases throughout 2020,” the statement added.
The redeployments are in line with plans to pull-out from bases across Iraq and consolidate coalition forces in Baghdad and at Ain Al Asad Air Base in the country’s western desert.
The plan has been in the works since late last year, the senior coalition military official said, and accelerated when Iraqi forces proved they were capable of facing the threat from the IS with limited coalition assistance.
Some 7,500 foreign troops are in Iraq as part of the US-led coalition helping local troops fight remaining militants, but those numbers are being significantly drawn down this month.
Iraq announced the defeat of ISIS in late 2017, and the coalition is now implementing plans developed last year to consolidate its troop presence across the country.
Source: The National