By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
The US-led Coalition handed over an area of K-1 Air Base on Sunday, the third post in a week handed over to Iraqi Security Forces. This is officially part of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) "repositioning" in Iraq. It comes amid tensions with pro-Iranian groups, and rocket attacks that have targeted US and Coalition forces at bases such as Taji and Ayn al-Asad.
A statement by the Coalition notes "due to Iraqi Security Forces' success in the campaign against Daesh, the Coalition is adjusting its positioning in Iraq. These military movements are long-planned in coordination with the Government of Iraq. These pre-planned base transfers are not related to recent attacks against Iraqi bases hosting Coalition troops, or the ongoing COVID-19 situation in Iraq."
The official ceremony was accompanied by a statement. "Today in another proud day for our Iraqi Security Force partners and the anti-ISIS international military Coalition," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Barker, CJTF-OIR director of sustainment. “K1 has served as a critical location for the Coalition, the ISF and Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service in the fight to find and destroy ISIS safe havens in the rugged Hamrin Mountains. It will continue to be a key location in our partnered efforts to eliminate the evils of Daesh. Today’s transfer was coordinated with the Government of Iraq and is possible thanks to the efforts and successes of our ISF partners."
A US contractor was killed at K-1 during a rocket attack on December 27. That attack resulted in US retaliation against Kataib Hezbollah, a protest at the US embassy and the US airstrike on IRGC Quds Force head Qasem Soleimani and Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU) deputy leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Abu Mahdi was also the head of Kataib Hezbollah. On January 8 Iran fired ballistic missiles at Ayn al-Assad base, causing concussions to US personnel.
Over the next two months numerous rocket attacks were made on the Green Zone near the US Embassy and against several bases, eventually killed two Americans and one British members of the Coalition on March 11 at Camp Taji. The US again retaliated against warehouses linked to Kataib Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian groups. More rocket attacks followed and threats were posted.
The repositioning was announced on March 20, after the first transfer. “The Coalition is adjusting its positioning in Iraq for two reasons: long-planned adjustments to the force to reflect success in the campaign against Daesh; and, short-term moves to protect the force during the Coronavirus pandemic. The Coalition’s military movements are conducted in coordination with the Government of Iraq. Looking ahead, we anticipate the Coalition supporting the Iraqi Security Forces from fewer bases with fewer people," a statement said.
In addition training was stopped, ostensibly to prevent potential spread of COVID-19.
Qaim was transferred first on March 17. "Today marks a historic moment for the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve and our Iraqi Security Partners," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Barker, CJTF-OIR Director of Sustainment. "Al-Qaim base served as a critical location in the fight against Daesh. First, as the Iraqi Security Forces liberated the Al-Qaim region from an evil presence, and later as a valuable base during the Battle for Baghouz, the last physical territory held by ISIS. Today’s transfer is possible thanks to the efforts and successes of our ISF partners." On March 8 the Iraqi 30th Infantry Brigade had seized a weapons cache and explosive devices in al-Qaim District, Anbar province.
On March 23 Lt. Gen. Pat White commemorated the one year anniversary of the battle of Baghouz, noting the historic battle and defeat of ISIS physical caliphate. "We honor the fallen heroes of our partner forces and those wounded in our fight to eliminate ISIS in Iraq and Syria."
On March 26 Q-West was also transferred. "Today marks another milestone for the anti-ISIS international military Coalition and our Iraqi Security Forces partners," said Brig. Gen. Vincent Barker, CJTF-OIR director of sustainment. "The Qayyarah base served as a strategic launching point for the ISF and Coalition during the Battle of Mosul. In particular, the base serves as a hub for the Iraqi air force, who continue to deliver lethal strikes on Daesh bed-down locations. Today’s transfer was coordinated with the Government of Iraq and is possible thanks to the efforts and successes of our ISF partners." A photo accompanying the transfer showed "force protection measures" on March 13, "U.S. Army soldiers assigned to Task Force Automatic shot 155mm illumination rounds from a towed M777 howitzer at Camp Q-West, Iraq."
At K-1 more than $1 million of property was transferred. The CJTF-OIR says it will relocate and consolidate personnel and equipment from these and perhaps other Iraqi bases throughout 2020. It says the Iraqis "increasingly conduct independent operations in the fight against Daesh and the defense of their homeland."
Some pro-Iranian groups have celebrated the US leaving, with men linked to Asaib Ahl al-Haq waving flags along the road to Q-West. Others have warned the US is conducting "suspicious" movements in preparation for strikes.
* Update *
The US also left a small post in Mosul on March 30.