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January 8, 2020

EgyptAir halts flights to Baghdad: Germany withdraws troops from Iraq


January 8, 2020

BERLIN: Germany on Tuesday said it had withdrawn some of its troops deployed as part of the anti-IS coalition in Iraq, in the latest fallout over the US drone strike that killed a top Iranian general.

A total of 32 German soldiers based in Camp Taji near Baghdad were flown by a military transporter A400m to the al-Azraq airforce base in Jordan, the German military said in a statement.

Three German soldiers stationed in Baghdad, the headquarters of the coalition fighting against the Islamic State jihadist group, were transferred to Kuwait. "These troops can be brought back at any time if the training in Iraq is to resume," the statement added.

"The safety of our soldiers remains a top priority." Germany has deployed about 415 soldiers as part of the anti-IS coalition, with about 120 of its troops stationed in Iraq.

Germany’s move came after the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution asking the government to end its agreement with the US-led coalition. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said late on Monday the basis for the Germany military presence in Iraq is "that we have an invitation from the Iraqi government and parliament."

"If that is no longer the case... then the legal basis for us to be there is missing. We have to clarify this with those responsible in Baghdad as soon as possible." Chancellor Angela Merkel, France’s President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had in a joint statement on Sunday urged Iraq to not jeopardise a battle against IS jihadists.

"Preserving the (anti-IS) coalition is of great importance in this context. We call on the Iraqi authorities to continue to provide the coalition with the necessary support," they said. Meanwhile, Egypt’s flag carrier has suspended flights to the Iraqi capital for three days for security reasons, the civil aviation ministry said on Tuesday.

The suspension takes effect on Wednesday and comes after the killing of Iranian commander General Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad airport in a US drone strike last week.

EgyptAir suspended flights until Friday "for the safety of passengers and planes", the ministry said, adding they would resume after "the security situation stabilises" in Baghdad.

Bahrain’s Gulf Air halted flights to the Iraqi capital after Soleimani’s killing, while Royal Jordanian has resumed its Amman-Baghdad service after a suspension on Friday.

In a related development, the foreign ministers of four leading European powers meet in Brussels on Tuesday for emergency talks on Iran and Libya, as the EU scrambles to respond to two escalating crises on its doorstep.

The talks between Britain, France, Germany and Italy, plus the EU diplomatic chief, will cover the fallout from the US killing of a top Iranian general as well as Tehran’s latest step back from the 2015 nuclear deal.

The situation in Libya, where strongman Khalifa Haftar’s forces have seized the coastal city of Sirte, is also the agenda.

The meeting comes as the EU searches for ways to contain the growing tensions in the major flashpoints on its periphery, as Iran threatens revenge for the death of Qasem Soleimani in a US drone strike in Baghdad on Friday.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab will hold a one-on-one meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has warned Iran against retaliating over Soleimani’s death, before joining the German and Italian ministers for talks on Libya.

"The foreign secretary is travelling to Brussels today for talks with his European counterparts on the situation in the Middle East following the death of Soleimani and on the escalating conflict in Libya," the British foreign ministry said.

"The E3 will then meet to discuss the tensions between the US and Iran with all three pushing for de-escalation," it added, referring to Britain, France and Germany as the three European signatories of the Iran nuclear deal.

"The talks will also cover the nuclear deal following Iran’s latest announcement on Sunday that it is withdrawing from further commitments in the deal." The Libya meeting is due to start around two pm (1300 GMT), followed by the Iran talks.

European powers on Monday criticised Iran’s announcement that it was cutting its commitments under the nuclear deal, which has been steadily unravelling since US President Donald Trump withdrew and reimposed sanctions in May 2018.

But the possible repercussions from the killing of Soleimani -- the key player in Iran’s network of alliances and proxy groups around the Middle East -- will be a more pressing concern.

The US operation took Washington’s allies by surprise, and Nato held an urgent meeting of its ruling council on Monday to hear from American officials and discuss the future of the alliance’s training mission in Iraq.

EU officials see the gathering of foreign ministers as a chance to hear the views of all 28 member states on the Iran situation, after differing public reactions to Soleimani’s death.

Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has invited Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif to Brussels for talks, but it is not clear if or when he might come.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi on Tuesday to say the alliance remains committed to the fight against the Islamic State group (IS) and would resume training activities -- suspended after Soleimani’s death -- as soon as security improves.

In Libya, Haftar’s capture of Sirte raised tensions as Turkey said it was deploying troops to the country to protect the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).