US-led forces pull out of third Iraqi base this month

US soldiers gather at the Ain al-Assad airbase in Anbar, Iraq in January [File: Qassim Abdul-Zahra/AP]
US soldiers gather at the Ain al-Assad airbase in Anbar, Iraq in January [File: Qassim Abdul-Zahra/AP]

The United States-led coalition forces in Iraq withdrew on Sunday from a military base in the country’s north that nearly launched Washington into an open war with neighbouring Iran.

The K1 airbase is the third site coalition forces have left this month, in line with the US plans to consolidate its troops in two locations in Iraq.


A rocket attack on the base in late December had killed an American contractor and led to a series of tit-for-tat attacks between the US and Iran-backed Iraqi militia groups. The attacks culminated in the US-directed killing of top Iranian General Qassem Soleimani and a senior Iraqi militia leader, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Coalition forces handed over the K1 base in the northern Iraqi province of Kirkuk to Iraq’s military, according to a coalition statement. At least $1.1m of equipment was transferred to the Iraqis as 300 coalition personnel departed.

K1 has hosted coalition forces since 2017 to launch operations against the ISIL (ISIS) armed group in nearby mountainous areas. Areas south of Kirkuk, and north of neighbouring provinces of Diyala, Salahuddin and Nineveh remain hotbeds of ISIL activities.

The stretch of the territory is also disputed between the federal Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdish region, which has created security gaps benefitting ISIL fighters. The coalition’s presence had at times been a mediating force between the two competing authorities.

‘Pretty constrained’

A senior coalition official earlier this month claimed ISIL forces were not as able to exploit the “security gap” between Iraqi and Kurdish forces as they did in the past.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that Daesh is free to operate in the way that they wish,” said the official, using the Arabic acronym for the group. “They’re still pretty constrained.”

The coalition official was speaking on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The US-led forces have already withdrawn this month from the Qayyarah base in Nineveh province followed by the Qaim base near the border with Syria. All were in line with plans to pull out from bases across Iraq and consolidate coalition forces in Baghdad and at the Ain al-Assad airbase in the country’s western desert.

The plan has been in the works since late last year, the senior coalition military official said, and accelerated when Iraqi forces proved they were capable of facing the ISIL threat with limited coalition assistance.

Coalition officials said they would still assist Iraqi forces with air support and surveillance, but significantly cut back on training and ground operations, as the limited withdrawal continues.

Until last month, there were some 7,500 coalition troops based in Iraq, including 5,000 US forces.

Iraq: In the shadow of US-Iran tensions


Iraq: In the shadow of US-Iran tensions


Somali governor killed in al-Shabab suicide bomb attack

Somali governor killed in al-Shabab suicide bomb attack
Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked group, wants to overthrow Somalia’s government [File: Al Jazeera]

A local official in northeastern Somalia has been killed in a suicide bomb blast claimed by the al-Shabab armed group, according to police and medical sources.

Abdisalan Hassan Hersi, governor of Nugaal region, succumbed to his wounds after being rushed to hospital in Garowe, the capital of Puntland where the blast occurred Sunday.


“The doctors tried to save the governor’s life, but unfortunately he died from his injuries,” Mohamed Weli, a police officer in Puntland, told AFP news agency by phone.

“He was in a critical condition when he was admitted to hospital,” Mohamed added.

A source at the hospital, who did not wish to be identified, said the governor died less than an hour after being admitted to the intensive care ward.

“He was badly wounded in the blast, and he had little chance of surviving such serious injuries,” the source told AFP.

A former police commander and a civilian also wounded in the blast were being treated in hospital, officials said on Monday.

Several witnesses described the attacker running at the governor’s vehicle before detonating a suicide vest, triggering an explosion.

Al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked armed group fighting to overthrow Somalia’s internationally recognised government, claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement.

The group was driven out of the capital, Mogadishu, in 2011 and lost most of their strongholds, but still control vast swathes of the countryside.



N Korea fires more missiles than ever amid coronavirus pandemic

A suspected missile is fired in this image released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on March 22, 2020 [KCNA/via Reuters]
A suspected missile is fired in this image released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency on March 22, 2020 [KCNA/via Reuters]

North Korea has fired two suspected ballistic missiles into the ocean off its east coast – according to South Korea and Japan – the latest in a flurry of weapon launches that Seoul decried as “inappropriate” amid the global coronavirus pandemic.

Two “short-range projectiles” were launched from the coastal Wonsan area on Sunday, and flew 230 kilometres (143 miles) at a maximum altitude of 30 kilometres (19 miles), South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff reported.


“In a situation where the entire world is experiencing difficulties due to COVID-19, this kind of military act by North Korea is very inappropriate and we call for an immediate halt,” the JCS said in a statement, according to Yonhap news agency.

Japan’s Ministry of Defense said the projectiles appeared to be ballistic missiles, and they did not land in Japanese territory or its exclusive economic zone.

“Recent repeated firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea is a serious problem to the entire international community including Japan,” a ministry statement said.

Pyongyang is yet to issue a statement on Sunday’s weapons launches.

They would be the eighth and ninth missiles launched in four rounds of tests this month, and the most missiles ever fired in a single month by North Korea, according to a tally by Shea Cotton, senior researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“Coming this early in the year, the only time we’ve seen tests this frequently were in 2016 and 2017, both of which were huge years for North Korea’s missile program,” he said in a post on Twitter.

All the missiles fired so far this year have been small, short-range weapons, such as the KN-24 fired during the last launch on March 21.

Some experts say the latest launches were likely designed to shore up unity and show that leader Kim Jong Un is in control in the face of US-led sanctions and the global pandemic.

Kim “wants to show he rules in a normal way amid the coronavirus (pandemic) and his latest weapons tests were aimed at rallying unity internally, not launching a threat externally,” Kim Dong-yub, an analyst at Seoul’s Institute for Far Eastern Studies, told The Associated Press. “North Korea doesn’t have time now to spare for staging (external threats).”

North Korea has been engaged in an intense campaign to prevent the spread of the virus that has infected more than 660,000 worldwide.

It has called its campaign a matter of “national existence” but has steadfastly denied there has been a single confirmed case on its soil. Many foreign experts question that claim, warning that an outbreak in North Korea could be dire because of its chronic lack of medical supplies and poor healthcare infrastructure.

A week ago, North Korea said US President Donald Trump sent a personal letter to Kim, seeking to maintain good relations and offering cooperation in fighting the pandemic. A North Korean state media dispatch did not say whether Trump mentioned any of the latest weapon tests by the North.

UN Security Council resolutions bar North Korea from testing ballistic missiles, and the country has been heavily sanctioned over its missile and nuclear weapons programmes.

In the past, North Korea has typically conducted military drills, including tests of its ballistic missiles, in March as the winter weather turns warmer. For the previous two years, however, it had avoided such springtime launches amid denuclearisation talks with the US.

Those talks have since stalled after Trump turned down Kim’s calls for broad sanctions relief in exchange for a limited denuclearisation step during their second summit in Vietnam in early 2019.

Pyongyang set a unilateral deadline for Washington to offer fresh concessions by the end of 2019, and in late December last year, Kim declared his country no longer considered itself bound by moratoriums on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests.



France and allies establish new task force in Sahel

Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol along a Gorgadji road in the Sahel area of Burkina Faso [File: Luc Gnago/Reuters]
Soldiers from Burkina Faso patrol along a Gorgadji road in the Sahel area of Burkina Faso [File: Luc Gnago/Reuters]

France and several of its European allies have officially set up a new task force, called Takuba, made of special forces that will fight armed groups in the West African region of Sahel alongside the armies of Mali and Niger.

After an audio conference on Friday, representatives of 13 countries – Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Mali, the Netherlands, Niger, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the UK – issued a statement in which they committed to further efforts to overcome the “terrorist groups’ resilience”.


The statement said Takuba, which means “sabre” in Tuareg, is planned “to have an initial operational capability (IOC) by the summer of 2020 and expected to become operational (FOC) by early 2021”.

It added that new task force will assist regional armies in countering armed groups and will complement efforts made by France’s Operation Barkhane and the regional G5 Sahel Joint Force, comprised of troops from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

The new task force will operate in the Liptako region, an area between Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali, according to the statement. Liptako is known for being a stronghold for fighters linked to ISIL (ISIS).

“Takuba will therefore be part of the counter-terrorism pillar of the ‘Coalition for the Sahel’, the broader coordinating framework recently announced in Pau,” it said, referring to the France-G5 Sahel summit held in the southern French city in January,

That meeting ended with leaders agreeing to the creation of a new structure aimed at bringing the two parties’ forces together under a single command, as well as facilitate joint operations and improve intelligence sharing.

During the summit, French President Emmanuel Macron also sought a clear declaration by his counterparts confirming their preference for France’s military engagement at a time of rising anti-French sentiment in some countries amid the swiftly deteriorating security situation.


France reaffirms Sahel presence but root cause of crisis unsolved

France, the former colonial power that once ruled several West African countries, already has about 4,500 soldiers in the region conducting Operation Barkhane.

Meanwhile, the United Nations has a 13,000-strong peacekeeping operation in Mali in what may be the world body’s most dangerous mission so far.

The UN, France and the US have poured billions of dollars into stabilising the Sahel, but have seen little success.

The region has seen a rise in violence in recent months, feeding a feeling of increased insecurity among residents, with millions displaced.

In January the UN envoy for West Africa told the UN Security Council that attacks have increased fivefold in Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger since 2016. More than 4,000 deaths were reported in 2019.

Has campaign against armed groups in West Africa's Sahel failed?


Has campaign against armed groups in West Africa’s Sahel failed?