Just hours before delivering his annual New Year’s address Monday evening, Defense Minister Frank Bakke-Jensen couldn’t predict the fate of Norwegian soldiers in Iraq or what NATO might do regarding new and rapidly rising tensions in the Middle East. Bakke-Jensen, however, has said Norway will pull its roughly 70 soldiers out of Iraq if Iraq formally demands that international forces leave the country.
The Norwegian troops have been in Iraq’s southwest province of Anbar to help train Iraqi soldiers in the ongoing fight against terror organization IS. Norway also is part of NATO’s presence in Iraq, but now the NATO operation is in jeopardy after a US drone attack killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani near Baghdad on Friday.
Bjørn Olav Knutsen, a NATO expert and researcher at the Norwegian Defense Institute (Forsvarets forsvarsinstitute, FFI) called the attack that also killed many others, “an incomprehensibly bad evaluation” by the US. “It’s the latest in a string of catastrophic military actions in the region,” Knutsen told newspaper VG.
The Iraqi national assembly reacted by voting to throw all international forces out of the country, including the anti-IS operations. If Iraqi officials follow through on the vote, “it will be a victory for Iran,” Knutsen said.
NATO meets in a hurry
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who’d been home in Norway for the holidays, flew back to headquarters in Brussels and quickly called an emergency meeting of NATO ambassadors Monday afternoon. Karsten Friis, a senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told VG that the meeting was meant to at least partially show that NATO is not “braindead,” as it was recently accused of being by French President Emmanuel Macron.
Most European members of NATO including Norway have expressed “deep concern” that the US’ attack on Iraqi soil that killed an Iranian general only fuels tensions in the Middle East. “I am deeply worried about the dramatic escalation we have seen in recent days,” Norwegian Foreign Minister Ide Eriksen Søreide stated just before the weekend. “I urge all parties involved to contribute towards calming the situation (set off when Iranian-backed Iraqi stormed the US Embassy in Baghdad earlier last week) to hinder the escalation from going out of control.”
US complains about a lack of support
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, has complained about a lack of support from NATO’s European members and there’s disagreement among them. Now NATO needs to decide how to respond, not least what NATO countries including Norway should do with their forces stationed in Iraq. If they’re forced out, the battle to keep IS in check can be threatened.
Norwegian Defense Minister Bakke-Jensen told VG Monday afternoon that “right now, the Norwegian soldiers can’t do anything. They’re using their resources on security measures.”
He said Norway still had not received any formal message from the Iraqis regarding displacement, despite the vote they should leave. US-led coalition members in Iraq had a telephone meeting at the ministerial level late Friday, where it was agreed to await further notice from authorities in Baghdad.
That’s because, according to Bakke-Jensen, similar resolutions in the Iraqi parliament have only taken effect after “closer contact between the Iraqi and Norwegian politial authorities. We can just wait and see what happens now.” Norway’s troops are in Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi authorities for anti-terrorism training. If the invitation is indeed retracted, “it would be impossible (for Norway) to be there for mentoring and training if the Iraqi don’t want us,” Bakke said.
‘Strongly condemned’ earlier embassy attack
Norway was quick, meanwhile, to “strongly condemn” the storming of the US Embassy in Baghdad and on coalition forces in Kirkuk. “It is the responsibility of the Iraqi government to ensure the protection and safety of diplomatic missions in Iraq,” Foreign Minister Søreide said last Thursday.
The reprisals since, however, are not constructive in Norway’s view, not even among MPs that often fully support the US. “I think Norway needs to stay far away from all this,” MP Christian Tybring-Gjedde of the conservative Progress Party, told newspaper Klassekampen over the weekend. “We have nothing to gain by taking part in such conflicts apart from operations with NATO.”
Several other members of the Norwegian Parliament have also made it clear during the past few days that they don’t want Norway to get involved further in the conflict between the US and Iran or Iran and Iraq. Knut Arild Hareide, who sits on the parliament’s foreign relations and defense committee, claimed that the US’ drone attack contributes to “even more instability.” MP Michael Tetzschner who, along with Søreide, represents the Conservatives, fears further escalation, worrying that it can all set off “another civil war of sorts” between Shia and Sunni Muslims, while Labour Party leader and MP Jonas Gahr Støre called the developments in the Middle East “extremely worrisome.”
“Iran’s revolutionary guard plays a negative role in a long string of conflicts in the region,” Støre told Klassekampen. “The US’ murder of the revolutionary guard’s leader can unleash a spiral of reprisals and attacks. It’s dramatic when the US is encouraged to leave Iraq. A strategy is needed to unify and avoid further and uncontrolled escalation.”
One aspect of all the turmoil was good for Norway as usual on Monday. The price of oil was up sharply, nearly hitting USD 70 a barrel late Monday afternoon. Given Norway’s large if controversial oil industry, oil price increases always benefit the economy. Oil analyst Nadia Martin Wiggen at Pareto Securities told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Monday that she now thinks oil prices will surpass USD 75 a barrel because of the tension between the US and Iran.