U.S. restarts counter-ISIS operations paused after Soleimani killing

American troops in Iraq had focused on force protection rather than offensive operations after the senior Iranian general was killed in a drone strike.
Image: U.S. soldiers clearing rubble at Ain al-Asad military airbase in the western Iraqi province of Anbar in Iraq on Jan. 13, 2020.
U.S. soldiers clearing rubble at the Ain al-Assad military air base in the western Iraqi province of Anbar in Iraq on Monday.Ayman Henna / AFP - Getty Images

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By Courtney Kube and Michelle Gooden-Jones

The United States has restarted joint counter-ISIS operations with Iraq that were suspended after a drone strike killed a senior Iranian commander in Baghdad, two American military officials told NBC News late Wednesday.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak to the media on the subject, said Iraq was now also interested in the resumption of the operations that have been in place since 2015 as the Islamic State militant group took control of swaths of Iraq and Syria.

However, Gen. Abdulkarim Khalaf, a spokesman for Iraq's armed forces, told the state run Iraq News agency that, his country, did not give permission to "the US-Led coalition to be active again."

Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a powerful commander of Iran's secretive Quds Force, as well as the country’s forces in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere throughout the Middle East, died in the drone strike Jan. 3. After the strike, the U.S. military in Iraq focused on force protection, or ensuring the safety of Americans, rather than offensive operations.

U.S.-Iraq relations deteriorated after Soleimani’s death, with Iraq calling the U.S. move an unacceptable breach of its sovereignty. The country’s parliament later voted to expel U.S. forces, and thousands of protesters turned out in Baghdad and southern Iraq demanding that the U.S., as well as Iran, leave the country.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has responded to Iraqi anger by saying that the more than 5,000 American troops in Iraq are critical to the fight against ISIS.

U.S. officials say Soleimani was targeted because he was planning attacks against the United States in the Middle East. But tensions had already been rising in the region before the strike.

In December, a rocket attack on a base in northern Iraq killed an American contractor. The U.S. blamed Iran-backed fighters for the killing, and quickly retaliated with airstrikes on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria.

On Dec. 31, hundreds of Iranian-backed militiamen attacked the highly fortified American Embassy compound in Baghdad.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Matthew Tueller, is scheduled to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi Thursday to discuss the future of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, according to officials.