Anxiety is growing in Iraq that the US could shut its Baghdad embassy, opening the way for military action in the country against Iran-aligned militias.
Washington has made preparations to withdraw diplomats from Iraq after warning Baghdad it could shut the embassy, two Iraqi officials and two Western diplomats were on September 28 cited by saying as Reuters.
Any move by the US to reduce its diplomatic presence in a country where it has up to 5,000 troops would be widely seen in the region as an escalation of its confrontation with Iran, which Washington blames for missile and bomb attacks in Iraq, including rocket attacks on the grounds of the embassy and Baghdad airport.
Such a move, noted Reuters, would in turn open the possibility of military action, with just weeks to go before an election in which US President Donald Trump has campaigned on a hard line towards Tehran and its proxies.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to close the embassy in a phone call a week ago to Iraqi President Barham Salih, two Iraqi government sources said. The conversation was initially reported by an Iraqi news website.
By September 27, Washington had begun preparations to withdraw diplomatic staff if such a decision is taken, the Iraqi government sources and the two Western diplomats were cited as saying.
‘Pleaded for no aggravation’
Populist Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who commands a following of millions of Iraqis, last week pleaded for groups to avoid aggravation that would turn Iraq into a battleground.
One of the Western diplomats said the U.S. administration did not “want to be limited in their options” to weaken Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. Asked by Reuters whether he expected Washington to respond with economic or military measures, the diplomat replied: “Strikes.”
Earlier this month, the US military said it would reduce its presence in Iraq to 3,000 troops from 5,200.
Rockets regularly fly across the River Tigris towards the heavily fortified US diplomatic compound, constructed to be the biggest US embassy in the world in central Baghdad’s so-called Green Zone during the US occupation after a 2003 invasion.
In recent weeks rocket attacks near the embassy have increased and roadside bombs targeted convoys carrying equipment to the US-led military coalition. One roadside attack hit a British convoy in Baghdad, the first of its kind against Western diplomats in Iraq for years.
On September 28, three children and two women were killed when two militia rockets hit a family home, the Iraqi military said. Police sources said Baghdad airport was the intended target.
Some Iraqi officials dismissed Pompeo’s threat to pull out diplomats as bluster, designed to scare armed groups into stopping attacks, Reuters also reported, adding that they also observed that the tactic could backfire by provoking the militias instead, if they sense an opportunity to push Washington to retreat.
“The American threat to close their embassy is merely a pressure tactic, but is a double-edged sword,” Gati Rikabi, a member of Iraq’s parliamentary security committee, was quoted as saying.
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