BRUSSELS – NATO is to expand the Western alliance’s training mission in Iraq, partly in response to U.S. calls do more in the Middle East.

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels it was agreed NATO will take over some of the training activities carried out by the American-led coalition against the Islamic State.

NATO last month suspended training of Iraqi forces to ensure the safety of several hundred mission members amid fears for regional stability after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander Qassem Soleimani near Baghdad airport.

Defense ministers also discussed the situation in the wider Middle East and agreed to “strengthen” the security forces in Afghanistan.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters the alliance's Iraq mission would restart “as soon as possible” but said there had been no decision on how many troops would be re-assigned from the U.S.-led coalition.

President Donald Trump has repeatedly called on the western alliance to do more in the region.

Stoltenberg, speaking at a news conference at the end of the first day of a two-day meeting, pointedly said the “enhanced” NATO presence in Iraq “would be with the consent of the Iraqi government.”

NATO and the coalition have non-combat, “train-and-advise” missions that aim to develop Iraqi security forces, but Stoltenberg declined to give further details on the beefed-up NATO involvement in Iraq.

He said, “Today, allied ministers agreed in principle to enhance NATO’s training mission. In the first instance, this will consist of taking on some of the global coalition’s current training activities.”

The aim, he said, was to contribute more to stabilizing a region where “conflict and turmoil has caused untold suffering.”

“This also poses challenges for us,including fueling the spread of terrorism.”

He added, “This is why we are considering taking on some of the coalition’s current training activities. We will also explore what more we can do beyond this first step."

Stoltenberg stressed, “NATO, though, is in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government and will only stay in Iraq as long as we are welcome because NATO respects Iraq’s sovereignty.”

The aim of the expanded training mission, he went on, “is to increase the capacity of Iraq’s armed forces so that they no longer need our support in the fight against terrorism and to ensure that ISIS does not come back.”

NATO Mission Iraq (NMI), made up of several hundred trainers, advisers and support staff from countries of the 29-member alliance and non-NATO partner nations, includes military and civilian personnel. Established in Baghdad in October 2018 after three years of war against Islamic State, NMI is a non-combat, train-and-advise mission to help Iraqi security structures and institutions fend off future insurgencies. Its personnel do not deploy alongside Iraqi forces during their operations.

The defense ministerial concludes on Thursday, and Stoltenberg will then attend the Munich Security Conference on Friday and Saturday along with the Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană.

Martin Banks covered the European Union, NATO and affairs in Belgium for Defense News.

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