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US pulls embassy staff from Iraq amid Iran ‘threat’

Updated May 16, 2019

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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan walk at the US Embassy compound toward the heli pad to catch a helicopter that will transport them to the International Airport, in Baghdad, Iraq. —Reuters/File
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his wife Susan walk at the US Embassy compound toward the heli pad to catch a helicopter that will transport them to the International Airport, in Baghdad, Iraq. —Reuters/File

WASHINGTON: The US on Wednesday ordered all non-emergency staff to leave its embassy in Baghdad and consulate in Arbil, ramping up alarm over an alleged Iran threat even as allies appeared less than convinced.

A senior Democratic senator demanded President Donald Trump’s administration brief Congress on the Iran threat, warning that the US legislature has not approved military action against Tehran.

And Moscow expressed concerns that both Washington and Tehran were dangerously stoking tensions, as the Pentagon ramped up its forces in the Gulf with B-52 bombers, Patriot missiles and an aircraft carrier task force.

The embassy evacuation came 10 days after Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton announced the military deployment in response to intelligence on an unspecified “imminent” plot by Iran to attack US forces or allies.

The State Department warned of numerous “terrorist and insurgent groups” active in the country, including “anti-US sectarian militias” who could “threaten US citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq.” The warning did not mention Iran specifically, but “anti-US sectarian militias” points to Iran-backed groups.

A State Department spokesman said the departure of non-emergency personnel came in response to “the increased threat stream we are seeing in Iraq.”

Washington says it has received intelligence on possible attacks by Iranian or Iranian-backed forces, possibly targeting US bases in Iraq or Syria.

Some observers speculate that Tehran is seeking to retaliate to Washington’s decision in April to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of Iran as a terrorist organisation in an effort to stymie their activities across the Middle East.

But since the first US warning on May 5, the only activity seen has been a still-mysterious “attack” on Monday on four tankers anchored off Fujairah, a UAE port at the strategically crucial entrance to the Gulf. One or more vessels incurred light hull damage, but what caused the damage and who was behind it remains unknown.

US allies in Iraq have refrained from echoing Washington’s warning cry.

Major General Chris Ghika, a British spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve, the coalition fighting the militant Islamic State group, said there was no special heightened alert, and that OIR troops were always on guard against possible attacks.

After Ghika’s comments drew a sharp retort from the US Central Command, Britain’s defence ministry said they have “long been clear about our concerns over Iran’s destabilising behaviour in the region” — while still not confirming any new imminent danger.

Germany and the Netherlands said they were suspending training of soldiers in Iraq; German defence ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff said there was “generally heightened alert, awareness” among soldiers in the region, but gave no specifics.

Separately, the Netherlands’ defence ministry said it was suspending a training mission in Iraq due to “threats,” according to the Dutch ANP news agency. Both Washington and Tehran said they were not seeking war.

Published in Dawn, May 16th, 2019