New Zealand suspends training activities in Iraq's Camp Taji'
ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – New Zealand announced on Monday that it would suspend its training activities with Iraqi forces at the Taji military base north of Baghdad, while it also advised its citizens to leave Iraq.
The decision comes after a US drone strike late on Thursday that targeted a convoy near the Baghdad airport, killing Qasim Soleimani, the long-time head of the Quds Force, the paramilitary arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
The strike also killed Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the head of the Iranian-backed Shia militia, Kata'ib Hizbollah, which was responsible for killing a US contractor on Dec. 27 in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk.
Ron Mark, New Zealand's Minister of Defense, confirmed that the country has a total of 50 personnel deployed in Iraq—45 in a training camp at Taji and five in Baghdad. He also announced the suspension of his country’s operations in Iraq, saying, "Currently, training activities with the Iraqi forces at Taji are on hold, as the focus turns to the force protection of our members.”
“The New Zealand Defense Force remains vigilant to any changes in the security environment anywhere our troops are deployed,” Mark affirmed, adding that "stringent force protection remains in place to ensure all deployed New Zealand Defense Force personnel remain as safe as possible.”
Last summer, New Zealand announced that it planned to withdraw its forces from Iraq sometime this year.
While the Defense Ministry announced the suspension of military activities in Iraq, New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry advised its citizens to leave Iraq, following the rising tensions between the US and Iran. On Friday, the US advised its citizens to leave Iraq, and Denmark quickly followed suit.
However, the Danish warning also carried a significant divergence. It specified an exception for the Kurdistan Region, in recognition that the area is safe for Westerners.
Some 15 New Zealand citizens are registered as visitors in Iraq, according to local Iraqi media.
On Sunday, the US-led Coalition against the Islamic State announced that it was suspending operations against the terrorist group to focus on ensuring the security of the military bases in Iraq from which its troops operate.
Also on Sunday, Iraq’s parliament approved a draft bill, calling for an end to the presence of foreign troops in the country. Kurdish and Sunni parliamentarians boycotted the extraordinary legislative session. The draft measure was, nonetheless, approved by the Council's Shia members, who constitute a majority in the parliament and in Iraq as a whole.
A formal vote on the non-binding legislation is scheduled for next Saturday.
Editing by Laurie Mylroie