US Troops on Iran Mission Get Stuck in Middle East Over COVID-19 Movement Freeze

In early January, the Pentagon sent an additional 3,500 paratroopers to the Middle East on short notice after a spike in tensions that followed the assassination of Iran’s top general in a US drone attack.

American forces deployed to the Middle East to deter Iran have found themselves stuck in Kuwait after the movement of all US troops overseas was frozen for 60 days due to the coronavirus pandemic, meaning a surprise extension of their deployment.

Roughly 3,500 soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were rushed to Kuwait, where the US operates several military bases, from North Carolina just days after the killing of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds force.

Soleimani’s assassination on 3 January just outside Baghdad, which apparently did not comply with international law, exacerbated tensions between the US and Iran, prompting a retaliatory non-lethal missile strike from Iran on Iraqi bases that host American soldiers.

Some 800 service members returned to North Carolina in February, but the remaining 2,700 troops are now stuck in Kuwait because of the new coronavirus. As the US became the world’s most-affected country, Defence Secretary Mark Esper on Thursday ordered to stop all troop movement overseas for 60 days in a bid to contain the spread of the pandemic.

“This wasn’t a normal deployment. It was truly no notice. Dudes’ lives are in a bad place back home because of how fast we had to leave,” a soldier from the 1st Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division told The Daily Beast.

No coronavirus cases have been identified in the 1st Brigade so far; one soldier was reportedly isolated after displaying symptoms of the disease but eventually tested negative.

Meanwhile, 23 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier operating in the Philippine Sea. The entire crew of about 5,000 will be tested and personnel will be quarantined at Navy facilities in Guam as needed.

The warship was pulled on Thursday into the American territory of Guam, where troops at Naval Base Guam are working to transform some of the base’s facilities into makeshift quarantine shelters.

Despite the military and health officials advising against mass gatherings, roughly 140 beds have been crammed into a basketball gymnasium just three feet away from each other, according to The Daily Beast.

One US soldier working on those shelters told the outlet that some troops are afraid of getting sick from crew members arriving from the Roosevelt.

Acting Navy Secretary Thomas B. Modly has confirmed that there have been 133 COVID-19 cases reported in the Navy, including 104 among active duty military. Overall, the United States has registered the most cases in the world (more than 82,100), with at least 1,195 deaths.

US Forces Return Qayyara Air Base to Iraqi Control, Withdraw From Mosul Area

US forces in Iraq began their withdrawal from a key northern airfield on Thursday, returning Qayyara Air Base to Iraqi control.

With its two 11,000-foot runways capable of handling the largest American bombers and transports, Qayyara West Airfield, about 37 miles south of Mosul, played a key role in the fight against Daesh once it was recaptured from the pseudostate in 2016. Now, US forces have begun the process of leaving the air base, returning it to Iraqi control in a Thursday ceremony.

“As a result of the ISF’s [Iraqi Special Forces] success in their fight against [Daesh], and in conjunction with our partner forces and the Government of Iraq, CJTF-OIR will relocate and consolidate personnel and equipment from several Iraqi bases throughout 2020,” a Thursday statement by Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) reads.

The release did not mention how many troops were involved, but according to a fact sheet provided by the CJTF-OIR Public Affairs Office, there are approximately 800 people stationed on the base, Iraqi, US and French. France announced earlier this week that its 100 troops would be withdrawn from Iraq amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In all, there are 7,500 coalition troops in Iraq, 5,000 of which are American.

The statement notes that the departure includes a transfer of some $1.7 million in equipment to Iraqi forces, consisting mostly of everyday life support facilities like laundries and air compressors, but also communications equipment of unknown types.

US President Donald Trump declared Daesh defeated almost a year ago when its last sliver of territory was seized in eastern Syria, but the group has continued to exist underground, staging periodic attacks across Syria and Iraq and branching out into new franchises in Afghanistan and West Africa.

The coalition further notes it will “operate from fewer locations, but remains committed to supporting our partners in their fight against Daesh.”

“The ISF increasingly conducts independent operations in the fight against Daesh and the defense of their homeland including the ‘Heroes of Iraq’ Campaign and 2019’s ‘Will of Victory.’”

Interestingly, the statement also notes that “CJTF-OIR remains in Iraq at the invitation of the Government of Iraq.” Following a January airstrike that killed Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) deputy commander and Kataib Hezbollah founder Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis alongside Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani outside Baghdad, Iraq’s parliament asked US forces to leave the country.

Washington refused, and huge protests as well as renewed militant attacks against US bases followed. The PMF were formed as part of the same fight against Daesh, which occupied the northern parts of Iraq in 2014 through 2017, and Soleimani led Iranian and Iraqi forces in that fight, so Iraqis were outraged at their assassinations as well.