NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will hold a press conference ahead of the NATO Defense Ministers meeting at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on February 15, 2021.

NATO

WASHINGTON – NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Thursday that the 30-strong alliance will expand its security training mission in Iraq to prevent the war-torn country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists.

“The size of our mission will increase from 500 to around 4,000 people, and the training activities will now include more Iraqi security institutions and areas outside of Baghdad,” Stoltenberg told reporters at the end of a two-day virtual NATO defense ministers’ meeting.

“Our presence is conditional and the troop increases will be gradual,” he said, adding that the Iraqi government has requested an expanded mission.

Earlier this week, a senior defense official told reporters ahead of the NATO meeting that the Pentagon was “excited and welcomed NATO’s increased focus on Iraq”. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, would not disclose whether the US military was willing to contribute more troops to the training mission in Iraq.

The United States has 2,500 soldiers in Iraq.

“ISIS is still operating in Iraq and we have to make sure that they cannot return,” Stoltenberg said on Thursday, adding that attacks in the alliance have increased slightly.

The decision to increase NATO’s presence in Iraq follows a deadly missile attack in the city of Irbil.

A worker cleans broken glass in front of a damaged shop following a missile attack last night in Erbil, capital of the autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish region, on February 16, 2021.

Safin Hamed | AFP | Getty Images

The attack on Monday claimed the lives of a civilian contractor and injured nine other people, including a US soldier, according to Col. Col. Wayne Marotto, spokesman for the coalition against ISIS.

A Shiite group called Saraya Awliya al-Dam took responsibility for the strike and is seen as the front line of a militia group supported by Iran. The White House, Pentagon and State Department have not publicly confirmed who is behind the attack.

The Foreign Ministry promised on Wednesday to impose consequences on those responsible, but gave few details.

“We will not preview a response, but it is fair to say that there will be consequences for any group responsible for this attack,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters during a press conference.

“Any response we receive will be in full coordination with the Iraqi government and also with our coalition partners,” he added.

A day after the attack, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the White House was “outraged” by the violence in Iraq.

Psaki also said the Biden government is working with partners in the region to conduct an investigation into the attack.