BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the alliance must beef up its military training operation in Iraq to ensure that its members are not drawn back into combat there against Islamic State extremists.

Stoltenberg has held talks in recent days with senior Iraqi and officials and King Abdullah of neighboring Jordan amid cautious optimism that NATO might be permitted to resume its training activities in Iraq in the near future.

“We need to go heavy in and train. Build everything from the ministry of defense, institutions, command and control, to train forces. NATO can do that. We already do it, but we can scale up,” Stoltenberg told members of the European Parliament in Brussels on Tuesday.

NATO agreed in 2018 to launch a training mission in Iraq involving around 500 troops with the aim of building up the country’s armed forces so they could better combat extremist groups like ISIS.

But the operation was put on hold after a U.S. missile strike at Baghdad airport killed Iran’s top general earlier this month and the Iraqi government demanded that foreign troops leave its territory. As tensions mounted, U.S. President Donald Trump insisted that NATO should do more in the region.

However, there is little appetite among European allies and Canada to deploy troops, even though the United States is by far the biggest and most influential of the 29 NATO member countries.

While acknowledging that he opposed the Iraq war as a Norwegian lawmaker in 2003, Stoltenberg said Tuesday he thought “the West left a bit too early” and that ISIS took advantage of the security vacuum by seizing vast swathes of territory in northern Iraq and Syria.

“I strongly believe that if we don’t act now we may be forced back in combat,” he told the parliamentarians. “We must prevent that from happening again, and therefore we need to build some local (security) capacity so they prevent ISIS (Islamic State militants) from coming back.”

“If we don’t do that we will have a big problem, for certain, and then we may end up 2-3 years down the road back in a big combat operation,” Stoltenberg said.

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