United States allies said that they were reducing and repositioning troops inside Iraq after the killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani in a US airstrike, a change that diplomats said would diminish their ability to fight Isis (Islamic State).
The troop movements in Iraq were prompted by fears that they were under threat from neighbouring Iran, which has said it will seek revenge for US President Donald Trump's decision to target one of Tehran's most senior military officials in an airstrike. Some European diplomats expressed fears that Isis would benefit from the shifts.
Militants "would be the only winners" of a full-blown war as a result of US-Iran tensions, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said, singling out Isis as having the most to gain.
Germany ordered 35 service members out of Iraq, according to a German military spokesman, while an international Nato training force moved more than half of its international group of 500 personnel away from the Baghdad area to safer sites inside Iraq and in neighbouring countries, a senior Nato diplomat said.
Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg spoke to Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi, according to a Nato spokesman, Piers Cazalet.
Stoltenberg "stressed that allies remain strongly committed to the Nato mission in Iraq," Cazalet said in a statement, adding that "Nato has temporarily suspended training activity on the ground, but is prepared to continue when the situation permits."
Nato leads a noncombat training mission inside Iraq. Many Nato members also take part in the separate, US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. Both Nato and the US-led coalition suspended their activity following last week's killing of Soleimani, citing safety concerns, although both groups want to resume their activities when they are able.
"Nato Allies remain committed to the #Nato training mission in Iraq and the fight against Isis. We continue to support a safe & prosperous future for the Iraqi people and we look forward to resuming Nato's on-the-ground training with Iraqi forces once the situation permits," US Ambassador to Nato Kay Bailey Hutchison tweeted.
Europeans have been measured in their commentary about the death of Soleimani, a man whom most EU leaders viewed as a security threat. But many have been frustrated that the US decision to target him is likely to inflame a conflict with Iran and could imperil other security priorities in the Middle East.
"The way they are doing it is only jeopardising the fight against Daesh," said a senior Nato diplomat, using another name for Isis.
The diplomat expressed incredulity that US officials have been saying that the killing of Soleimani was intended to de-escalate the situation.
"The notion that the Americas are calling this a de-escalating, defensive move is frankly surreal. It's Soviet," the diplomat said. "They think they're re-establishing their deterrence while planning the withdrawal of their forces in Iraq."
A second senior Nato diplomat expressed concern that targeting a senior military leader of a nation-state could change the bounds of what is acceptable between countries that are not at war with each other. The diplomat drew a distinction with actions against Isis and other terrorist network leaders, since they are not part of sovereign nations.
"This changes the rules of the game," the diplomat said. "If you take out a senior military commander, why shouldn't they do the same to you?"
The airstrike targeting Soleimani also killed senior Iraqi officials and led to a wave of anger in Baghdad. The Iraqi Parliament approved a nonbinding resolution demanding that the US military pull out of the country. It offered no time frame for the request.
A US departure would also lead to a wave of other pullouts from the country, since US logistical support is key for the presence of most of the military deployments, even those of large nations such as France and Germany.
A total of 35 German service members in the district of Taji and in Baghdad were affected by the order to leave Iraq, which was completed by today. About 110 more German military members are still stationed in Irbil, the regional capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the German military spokesman said.
The German Government said it remains open to returning military personnel to Baghdad and other Iraqi bases. "In principle, we stand by the usefulness of this mission," a military spokesman said. "The fight against the Isis is not over and the many achievements we have made need to be secured. The decisive factor will now be the Iraqi Government," he said.
A weekend meeting of EU foreign ministers, convened on an emergency basis to discuss how to respond to the Iran threat, is likely to yield public frustrations with US actions. Europeans fear that the Iran nuclear agreement, already faltering, may now be dead altogether, with Tehran declaring that it will abide by even fewer of its commitments under the 2015 accord.
The EU foreign ministers will discuss whether and when to trigger the formal mechanism that would most likely lead to the reimposition of sanctions against Iran. Until recently, Europeans had hoped to ride out this year and to try to rebuild the deal if Trump is not re-elected.