NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday the alliance was ready to answer a U.S. call for NATO to expand its small training mission in Iraq to support reconstruction of the country after three years of war with Islamic militants.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis sent a letter to NATO last month calling for a formal NATO train-and-advise mission, Reuters reported, part of President Donald Trump's campaign for the alliance to do more against militants.
Stoltenberg's support is a sign the alliance may be dropping the resistance it put up last year. But the issue remains divisive, with European NATO allies fearing another open-ended foreign assignment after more than a decade in Afghanistan.
"We have to win the peace," Stoltenberg told a news conference, saying he expected NATO defence ministers to start planning for a bigger mission at a meeting in Brussels on Thursday, with a decision to launch the mission in July.
"It is extremely important to stabilise the country after the combat operations have ended," said Stoltenberg, who has good ties with Trump and visited the U.S. president at the White House last year.
While NATO has a few trainers working out of the British embassy in Baghdad, a NATO mission would channel the financial resources of the 29 allies, allow for military commanders to drum-up troops and broaden training beyond the capital.
Stoltenberg, who will meet Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi at the Munich Security Conference later this week, declined to go into troop numbers for Iraq, but said training could include at the defence ministry and on bomb disposal.
NATO's potential involvement comes as Iraq faces a bill of more than $88 billion to rebuild the country, officials told a donor conference in Kuwait this week. Iraq declared victory over Islamic State in December, having taken back all the territory captured by the militants in 2014 and 2015.