WASHINGTON: The United States on Wednesday ordered the departure of all non-emergency diplomatic staff from Iraq — a move aimed at increasing pressure on the neighbouring Iran but a key US ally said it saw no increased risks from Tehran or Iran-backed militias.

In a statement issued in Washin­g­ton, the US State Department said that employees working in the US embassy in Baghdad and the US consulate in Erbil were instructed to leave, and that “normal visa services will be temporarily suspended at both posts.”

The level four travel advisory also advised all Americans, not to visit Iraq “due to terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict.” But at a Tuesday afternoon briefing at the Pentagon, a senior British military official said he saw no increased risk from Iran or the Iran-backed militias.

“There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria. We’re aware of their presence, clearly, and we monitor them along with a whole range of others,” said Major General Chris Ghika, the deputy commander of the US-led allied forces in Iraq. When a journalist reminded Gen. Ghika that the US “says very much and very publicly” that there’s an Iranian threat to forces in Iraq and Syria, he said: “There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don’t see any increased threats from many of them at this stage.”

A few hours later, the US Central Command violated its own protocol of not contradicting an official of an allied power like Britain and issued an unusual rebuke.

Gen Ghika’s remarks “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian backed forces in the region” Centcom said.

The statement pointed out that US Central Command, in coordination with Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), “has increased the force posture level for all service members assigned to OIR in Iraq and Syria.” The US-led anti-militant operation in Iraq and Syria is known as OIR.

“OIR is now at a high level of alert as we continue to closely monitor credible and possibly imminent threats to US forces in Iraq,” the statement added. The Pentagon Website placed Centcom’s rebuke on top of Gen Ghika’s briefing.

The New York Times, while commenting on this rare public dispute between Britain and the United States, noted that it “highlights a central problem for the Trump administration as it seeks to rally allies and global opinion against Iran.”

The report noted that over the last year, Washington had portrayed Iran as a major threat to US interests in the Middle East but America’s European allies were reluctant to back the US claim.

“Intelligence and military officials in Europe as well as in the United States said that over the past year, most aggressive moves have originated not in Tehran, but in Washington — where John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, has prodded President Trump into backing Iran into a corner,” NYT added.

CNN noted that the partial evacuation of US diplomatic staff from Iraq came on the heels of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s unannounced trip to Iraq where he spoke about Baghdad’s ability to protect Americans.

“The action also represents the latest manoeuvring by the Trump administration in the Middle East, where the Pentagon has recently positioned a carrier strike group and a bomber task force,” the report added.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2019