BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government has told its military not to seek assistance from the U.S.-led coalition in operations against the Islamic State group, two senior Iraqi military officials said, amid a crisis of mistrust between Washington and Baghdad after an American strike killed a top Iranian general and an Iraqi militia commander.
The step shows that while the Iraqi leadership’s demands for an immediate removal of American forces have cooled, they are serious about rethinking the strategic relationship, and this is directly affecting military cooperation.
Officially, Iraqis have been unclear on the status of joint operations. The Iraqi military announced Jan. 30 that they had resumed after a three-week halt, but that statement was later removed and a military spokesperson rescinded the claim in remarks to state television. It was not followed up with a clarification.
The halt had been called amid soaring tensions following the Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike ordered by President Donald Trump that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and senior Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad.
On at least two occasions in January, U.S. officials said they expected the pause would be lifted imminently. But in practice, Iraqis are seeking to minimize cooperation with the anti-ISIS coalition, based on government orders, two Iraqi military officials and one militia official said this week.
“After the killing of Soleimani, the Iraqi government decided to inform us formally not to cooperate and not to seek assistance from the U.S.-led international coalition in any operation,” a senior military intelligence official told The Associated Press.
“Until now, we have not asked the Americans to provide assistance, we rely on our capabilities to pursue IS elements. The presence of the Americans in the joint operations is only formal,” the official said.
The three officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
The top U.S. commander for the Middle East slipped quietly into Iraq Tuesday, as the Trump administration works to salvage relations with Iraqi leaders and shut down the government’s push for an American troop withdrawal.
The coalition paused its mission to fight ISIS in Iraq on Jan. 5 after the strike. That same day, Shiite lawmakers, irate over what they called a flagrant violation of sovereignty, passed a nonbinding resolution requesting the government cancel legal agreements that provide the basis for the U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
Outgoing Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has stated publicly that U.S. troops must go, but he has stepped back from unilaterally canceling existing agreements, saying the matter was up to the next prime minister to decide. Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi has not made his policy known toward the troop presence.
About 5,200 U.S. soldiers are stationed in Iraqi bases to support local troops fighting ISIS militants. They are part of a larger international coalition invited by the Iraqi government in 2014.
One of the officials, a commander in Iraq’s elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Services in western Anbar province, said some training continues, but “as for military operations and carrying out operations, there is no support.”
“We have knowledge that the American support to the Iraqi forces has stopped,” said the commander of an Iranian-backed militia group.
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“This suggests ISIS continues to view the security environment in northeast Syria as more conducive to its operations.”
No coalition airstrikes have been carried out against ISIS since the killing of Soleimani, said coalition spokesman Myles Caggins. In contrast, 45 strikes were conducted in Iraq in October and November.
“The Iraqis have not requested assistance with airstrikes in recent weeks, while our operations are paused. All coalition airstrikes have been coordinated with the Iraqi Security Forces for years,” he said.
Iraqi military personnel who have benefited from coalition training are making appeals in private, knowing firsthand Iraq’s reliance on U.S. military technologies and aircraft.
“We have no alternative now,” said the senior CTS official. “The battle against IS is technological, and we don’t own any of these technologies, only the Americans do.”
U.S. Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top American commander for the Middle East, met Tuesday with Iraqi leaders and acknowledged that joint military operations and training have been scaled back, although he said U.S. special operations forces are doing some missions with Iraqi commandos.
“We’re still in a period of turbulence. We’ve got a ways to go,” he said.
Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor, aboard a U.S. military aircraft, contributed.