The Iraqi government would be mistaken to heed a parliamentary resolution and expel a US-led counter-terrorism coalition from the country, Belgium’s defence minister said on Tuesday.
“I think the coalition’s [presence in Iraq] is necessary and that it has already produced concrete results in the fight against Daech,” Defence and Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Goffin said, using the Francophone acronym for the Islamic State (IS) terror group.
Speaking on RTL‘s morning radio show, Goffin said that the NATO military alliance’s servicemen, among which there are a “handful” of Belgian soldiers, would be staying put inside military compounds in the area until further notice.
“The security advice issued after a NATO meeting on Monday was to set a security perimeter in the places where our forces are present, that’s our number one mission now,” Goffin said.
“We are following the situation of our country nationals on the ground and we are working towards a diplomatic solution and calling for a de-escalation,” the minister said, adding that the “tense” popular uprisings in Iran and Iraq in recent days was the “proof and the expression of a need to return to dialogue.”
Goffin’s comments follow days of escalating tensions between Iran and the US after the latter killed Iran’s most powerful military general in a targetted airstrike on 3 January, with his death leading tens of thousands of people to pour into the streets of Iran in mourning.
The killing of Iran’s General Qassim Soleimani, who led the country’s elites military Quds Force, fueled fears of full-blown conflict after Iran vowed to exact revenge for the killing of it’s second most powerful official, in an attack which took place on Iraqi soil.
In the aftermath of the strike, which also killed Iraqi paramilitary leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, street protests broke out and Iraqi lawmakers voted to expel US troops from the country, a measure the prime minister said would “protect those on Iraqi soil.”
Goffin said that the resolution represented the view of “some Iraqis” on the presence of foreign troops, saying that the government had no obligation to follow through with the vote.
“A resolution is not an obligation for the government… It is up to the [government’s] to make a decision,” Goffin said, adding: “I think Iraq would be making a big mistake if it asked the coalition to withdraw,” noting that terror threats were “still present.”
“Our responsibility is to fight in all exterior zones to limit the risks for our country, which has also been badly hit by attacks,” he said.
Goffin also said that Belgian citizens in the region —which he said included around 150 in Tehran and around 100 in Iraq—had been warned by embassies to take precautionary measures and to avoid public gatherings and steer clear of military zones.