BRUSSELS—NATO’s members are aiming to boost the number of training and military advisory personnel at the alliance’s mission in Iraq, in response to President Trump’s call for them to do more in the Middle East, officials said.
Under a proposal that has won broad support among its members, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would reassign trainers to its mission from the U.S.-led global coalition against Islamic State, which is currently outside NATO structures. The proposal could be approved by NATO defense ministers when they hold a scheduled meeting next month, diplomats said.
Mr. Trump’s request earlier this month in a telephone call with NATO Secretary-General
caught U.S. and other officials at the alliance by surprise, officials say. The new proposal would allow the alliance to respond quickly to the appeal from its most important member without opening a politically fraught debate over committing more troops to the region.
“It wouldn’t change much on the ground,” said a European diplomat at NATO, who described the idea as “streamlining and rebranding.”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized NATO, and the alliance has worked in recent years to satisfy his calls for allies to do more. The focus on placating Mr. Trump has irritated some European officials. French President
said late last year that NATO was experiencing “brain death” because the U.S. wasn’t consulting with its close allies on strategic decisions.
Diplomats at NATO say the alliance could take further steps to bolster its presence in the Middle East, but that folding personnel already present into the NATO mission was the fastest and most effective way to respond quickly to Mr. Trump’s request. It also aligns with the Trump administration’s desire to reduce its footprint in the region, according to alliance officials.
NATO had roughly 500 trainers, advisers and support staff in Iraq until it paused its mission amid tensions after the targeted killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani by the U.S.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State was formed in 2014 and includes 34 countries that provide roughly 11,000 personnel across Iraq, Syria and Kuwait. The majority are focused on training and mentoring Iraqi security forces or related logistics and support, a spokesperson for the coalition said. Officials couldn’t provide figures on how many service members could join the NATO mission.
Mr. Stoltenberg has held talks with senior Iraqi officials and King Abdullah of neighboring Jordan in recent weeks. He has stressed the importance of focusing on training activities as a way to avoid the necessity for large combat operations in the future.
As tensions build between the U.S. and Iran, WSJ’s Gerald F. Seib explains why the fight against ISIS may take a backseat. Photo: Getty Images
“We need to go heavy in and train, build local…institutions, command and control, to train forces,” he told the European Parliament on Jan. 21. “NATO can do that, we already do it, but we can scale up.”
The U.S. strike on Gen. Soleimani unsettled European allies as they had no prior warning and feared an outbreak of hostilities could spark conflicts that could allow Islamic State to rebuild and unleash a new wave of migrants. Europe has also sought to preserve the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran that the Trump administration withdrew from.
Allies say that any changes to the NATO mission should be agreed on with the Iraqi government. Iraq’s Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution to expel U.S. troops, but the country’s caretaker prime minister indicated he would leave the decision to a successor and U.S. officials say they have no intention of leaving.
Increasing its presence in the Middle East would represent a shift for the alliance, which was founded to counter the Soviet Union and has focused on building up forces aimed at deterring Russia since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine in 2014.
As well as the Iraq mission, NATO supports the coalition with Awacs surveillance planes. It has training activities in Jordan and Tunisia and a training-and-advisory mission of some 17,000 personnel in Afghanistan.
Abdul Kareem Khalaf, a military spokesman for the Iraqi prime minister, said negotiations were continuing over the nature and scope of training, when asked about the NATO proposal.
Iraqi bases hosting troops from the U.S.-led coalition have repeatedly come under rocket attack in recent months as tensions escalated in the region. The U.S. has blamed Iran-backed militias for the attacks, and conducted strikes against the Kataib Hezbollah group in December after an American contractor was killed in a barrage of rockets on a base in northern Iraq.
Many of the rockets have been directed into the heavily fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy is located. While previous attacks didn’t hit the embassy, three mortar rounds landed inside the compound for the first time on Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition said.
Pro-Iranian militia commanders on Monday denied responsibility for Sunday’s attack, which struck a building adjacent to the canteen, according to an Interior Ministry official.
—Isobel Coles in Baghdad contributed to this article.
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