Coalition denies reports of withdrawal from Harir airfield

Al-Harir military base is about 70 km northeast of Erbil (Photo: Kurdistan 24)
Al-Harir military base is about 70 km northeast of Erbil (Photo: Kurdistan 24)

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) - Multiple coalition sources denied to Kurdistan 24 that the US-led coalition against ISIS is withdrawing from the Harir airfield near the Kurdistan Region’s capital.

This week local Kurdish media outlets quoting Arabic media reported that US troops will withdraw from the Harir military base, 70 kilometers northeast of Erbil, and relocate to Kuwait.

However, multiple coalition sources told Kurdistan 24 that there is no withdrawal planned.

“There is no change to the mission of [Operation Inherent Resolve], which is to defeat Daesh; its remnants and ensure its enduring defeat,” Coalition spokesperson Wayne Marotto told Kurdistan 24. 

Ahead of a key meeting between Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and US President Joe Biden in Washington last month, there was speculation of a major move of US forces currently deployed in Iraq. But the two leaders said they were committed to maintaining relations and that US troops would remain in Iraq in an advisory role. 

Anything beyond the agreement for “combat troops” to depart Iraq is “pure speculation,” Marotto added.

Following the January 2020 assassination of Iranian military commander Qassim Soleimani and his Iraqi comrade Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, tensions between Washington and Iran-backed militias in Iraq have surged. 

After months of rocket attacks last year, the former US administration issued strong warnings to the federal government in Baghdad and the Iran-backed militias blamed for attacks on US forces in the Kurdistan Region and Iraq. Armed groups declared a ceasefire that effectively ended when a new administration entered the White House in January.

Coalition forces, including those based at the Erbil International Airport and the Harir airfield , have come under attack from rockets, roadside bombs, and increasingly from explosive-packed drones that can fly low enough to avoid the radars that trigger the US C-RAM air defense system. The militias push for anti-ISIS coalition forces to leave Iraq.

The Kurdish capital has been targeted four times this year, including twice with drones. On July 6, an explosive drone landed near the airport. On July 23, another drone targeted the secretive Harir airfield, which hosts JSOC—the US Joint Special Operations Command.

Nicholas Heras, a senior analyst at the Washington, DC-based Newlines Institute, told Kurdistan 24 that the “Iran-backed forces in Iraq need to project a narrative of ‘resistance’ against the United States to claim their activities are serving Iraqi national security.”

“A continued US military presence in Iraq, even if essentially hidden as an advising mission on large Iraqi facilities, still draws the ire of a significant number of Iraqis, whether they support the Iran-backed militias or not,” he said. “This is a propaganda campaign of posturing ahead of Iraq's scheduled election in October.”

Yerevan Saeed, Ph.D. Candidate at the Carter School of Peace and Conflict Resolution in Washington, agreed that the posturing was part of the election campaign, “where the Shia backed groups seek to convey the message to their constituents and voters that they could force the US to leave Iraq, including the Kurdistan Region.”

“This propaganda as a part of the election campaign could have traction within the Shia population that are anti-American and want the US out of the country.”