US orders staff to vacate US embassies in Iraq as tensions mount

All ‘non-emergency’ government employees ordered to leave the country

President Donald Trump addresses troops during a surprise visit to  Al Asad Air Base in Iraq in December. Photograph: Al Drago/ The New York Times

President Donald Trump addresses troops during a surprise visit to Al Asad Air Base in Iraq in December. Photograph: Al Drago/ The New York Times

 

The United States ordered staff to vacate US embassies and consulates in Iraq on Wednesday amid signs of mounting tensions between the United States and Iran.

The state department said on Wednesday that all “non-emergency” government employees had been ordered to leave the country.

“Normal visa services at both posts will be temporarily suspended,” the state department said. “The US government has limited ability to provide emergency services to US citizens in Iraq.”

The instruction affects both the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Irbil in the north of the country.

Germany and the Netherlands also suspended military training programmes in the country.

The development comes amid speculation that the United States is laying the groundwork for a possible intervention in Iran, which borders Iraq.

Last week the United States deployed an aircraft carrier and other military resources including an antimissile battery to the Persian Gulf citing new intelligence that showed a possible escalation of activity by Iran.

Four vessels, including two that are Saudi-owned, were attacked on Sunday, while Saudi Arabia announced on Tuesday that two of its oil stations had been hit by drone attacks. Yemeni Houthi rebels aligned with Iran claimed responsibility for that attack.

The New York Times published an article earlier this week claiming that plans were afoot to deploy 120,000 military to the Middle East as it eyes the possible threat from Iran.

Mr Trump dismissed the story as “fake news”, though he added that he would be prepared to send “a hell of a lot more” than that. “Hopefully we’re not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that, we’d send a hell of a lot more troops than that,” Mr Trump told reporters on Tuesday.

Signs of division

Speculation about a mounting threat from Iran comes amid signs of division within the administration over Iran. National security adviser John Bolton, who served in the George W Bush administration, is a well-known Iran hawk who previously advocated regime change in Iran. But president Trump himself is known to oppose more involvement by the United States in the Middle East and campaigned in part on the promise to withdraw US troops from the Middle East.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who met president Vladimir Putin on Tuesday during his first visit to Russia as secretary of state, said the United States did not want war, but simply wanted Iran to behave like a “normal country”. However, he added that the United States would respond if its interests were attacked.

Claims by Washington of evidence of increased activity by Iran in the Middle East were refuted by a senior British military commander. Maj Gen Christopher Ghika, a senior officer in the US-backed coalition fighting Islamic State in the region, told journalists in the Pentagon via videolink that there was “no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria”.

“There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria, and we don’t see any increased threat from any of them at this stage,” he said.

In an unusual move, US defence officials refuted his comments.

The Pentagon’s central command issued a statement saying that Maj Gen Ghika’s comments “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence from US and allies regarding Iranian-backed forces in the region”, reiterating that United States forces in Iraq were “now at a high level of alert”.