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Finnish peacekeepers in Iraq to train Kurdish fighters

Close to 50 Finnish peacekeepers are set to begin training Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq. Operations chief Petri Hulkko says military activity in the area will not affect the security of the mission and that the Finnish troops will be in an area that has not been hit by recent air strikes.

Suomalainen rauhanturvaaja tarkastelee ympäristön tilannetta joukkojenkuljetusvaunu Pasin päältä ennen sen lähtökäskyä. Image: Ville Mättö / Yle

Some 17 members of the Finnish contingent participating in the United States-led training mission travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan this week.

Operations leader Petri Hulkko said that the remaining 30 peacekeepers will leave Finland by Friday to join them, bringing the team total to 47.

"The main camp isn’t ready yet but accommodation and cafeteria services are. The base camp will be ready in two to three weeks," Hulkko told Yle in a phone interview.

The aim of the training mission is to develop the fighting skills of Peshmerga forces battling extreme Islamist IS militants in northern Iraq.

The main Finnish base is located in the Kurdish capital of Erbil and the training camp is "about 150 kilometres from Erbil," not on the front line of the conflict.

"The Finns’ mandate does not allow them to be active on the front," Hulkko explained.

Threat of suicide attacks

Hulkko said that Turkey’s aerial strikes last week against IS and the Kurdish resistance movement the PKK will have no impact on the Finns’ mission. He added that the strikes took place in a border area that is far from their location.

He speculated that a meeting of NATO members taking place Tuesday would also have no impact on the training assignment.

"I can’t anticipate what NATO will decide but I don’t believe that it will influence the Finnish operation. This is not a NATO operation but a US-led training coalition deployment. It was planned a long time ago and I believe that we will proceed with the original concept," he remarked. Finland is a member of NATO's Partnership for Peace programme.

"Our security assessment is based on the assumption that in addition to the frontline action that we have seen so far, there will most likely be some activity by small groups including suicide attacks. We have prepared for this in our planning. At the moment there is no indication that there will be suicide strikes in the Kurdistan area; they have been carried out in areas controlled by or close to ISIS," he stated.

Peacekeepers to remain anonymous

The Finnish Defence Force is observing a strict communications policy for the operation, one that aims to protect peacekeepers' relatives.

"ISIS fighters are moving back and forth between Europe and Syria and there is a chance that they could try to pressure or threaten relatives here in Finland. For this reason we will not name peacekeepers publicly or give live interviews from the area," Hulkko observed.

The Finnish peacekeepers are to spend a total of one year in northern Iraq. They will work on a rotation that will see the current group return home after six months, to be replaced by another group for the rest of the training operation.