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NATO to increase presence in Iraq, delay decision on Afghanistan

NATO Secretary General holds a press conference as the alliance's two-day teleconference with member nations' defense secretaries wraps on Thursday. Photo courtesy of NATO
NATO Secretary General holds a press conference as the alliance's two-day teleconference with member nations' defense secretaries wraps on Thursday. Photo courtesy of NATO

Feb. 18 (UPI) -- NATO defense ministers decided this week to expand the alliance's mission in Iraq and to make a decision about its presence in Afghanistan by May 1.

On Thursday, defense ministers wrapped a two-day teleconference regarding NATO's missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, which a NATO press statement described as "key contributions to the fight against international terrorism."

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According to NATO, ministers agreed to "expand the scope of the NATO mission" in Iraq, in order to support Iraqi forces "as they fight terrorism and ensure that ISIS does not return."

On a practical level, that means incrementally increasing the size of the mission from 500 personnel to around 4,000, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.

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"Our mission is at the request of the Iraqi government," Stoltenberg said. "It is carried out with full respect for Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity."

The decision also comes days after a rocket attack at Iraq's Erbil airport, with three hitting the U.S. base on the complex, that killed a contractor and injured several others.

On Afghanistan, the alliance's defense ministers reiterated their commitment to the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, as well as to the Afghan peace process, "which is the best chance to end years of suffering and violence and bring lasting peace to Afghanistan."

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"At this stage, we have made no final decision on the future of our presence, but, as the May 1 deadline is approaching, NATO Allies will continue to closely consult and coordinate in the coming weeks," NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg said.

The alliance has "no easy options," Stoltenberg said, and while the alliance has supported the peace talks, the process is fragile, and "progress is slow."

"The Taliban must negotiate in good faith, reduce the high level of violence and live up to their commitment to stop cooperating with international terrorist groups," Stoltenberg said. "NATO's goal is to ensure that Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists that would attack our homelands."

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