US evacuates diplomatic staff from Iraq

The US is evacuating all but essential staff from its embassy and consulate in Iraq as tensions rise between the US and Iraq’s neighbour Iran in the volatile Gulf region.

The US state department said on Wednesday it had “ordered the departure of non-emergency US government employees from Iraq”, from its highly fortified embassy in the federal capital Baghdad and its consulate in Erbil, capital of Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region.

Unease is mounting in the region days after Saudi Arabia said two of its oil tankers in the Gulf were attacked and Saudi pumping stations were hit by drones sent by Iran-backed rebels from Yemen. It remains unclear who attacked the tankers.

Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, decided on the withdrawal because of “the increased threat stream we are seeing in Iraq”, said a US embassy spokesperson. “We are confident in Iraqi security services’ determination to protect us, but this threat is serious and we want to reduce the risk of harm.”

The spokesperson declined to say how, when, or how many staff were leaving, citing security reasons.

The US said last week it was deploying an aircraft carrier strike group and other military assets to the region, citing what it claimed were Iran’s “escalatory actions”. Mr Pompeo flew to Baghdad for an unscheduled visit last week. According to the US embassy spokesperson, Mr Pompeo shared the US’s security concerns with the Iraqi government during the visit.

Speaking after meetings with Russian leaders in Sochi on Tuesday, Mr Pompeo said the US “will continue to apply pressure on the regime in Tehran until its leadership is prepared to return to the ranks of responsible nations that do not threaten their neighbours or spread instability or terror”.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, said on Tuesday night that the country was not seeking a military confrontation. In comments quoted by state media, Mr Khamenei framed the conflict as a battle of wills, saying “our resoluteness is more unwavering than theirs”.

“Neither we are looking for a war, nor they are, as they know that it will not be in their interests,” said Mr Khamenei. Iranian officials say the attacks were worrisome and suspicious.

Negotiations with the Trump administration, Mr Khamenei said, would be “doubly poisonous” and “ridiculous”.

“The definite option in front of the Iranian nation is resistance against the US,” he said, “which will [eventually] be forced to retreat.”

US officials have given no details about the threat they say is escalating in Iraq. But the US accuses Iran of spreading malign influence in the Middle East via proxy groups.

A plethora of Iraqi Shia militias are backed by Tehran. But many have also been made part of the Iraqi state’s official security forces after combating the Sunni extremists Isis, regularised as the Hashd al-Shabi or Popular Mobilisation Forces.

However, the British deputy commander of the anti-Isis coalition, which is led by the US, said on Tuesday that Iran was not upping aggression through the militias it backs. “There’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” said Major General Christopher Ghika. “There are a substantial number of militia groups in Iraq and Syria and we don’t see any increased threat from many of them at this stage.”

The US central command contradicted Maj Gen Ghika, saying in a statement that his comments “run counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence”, adding that foreign troops combating Isis in Syria and Iraq were “now at a high level of alert” after the US military “increased the force posture level”.

The US shut down its consulate in Basra late last year, after mortars landed near its office close to the airport when protests over basic services devolved into riots. Its consul relocated to Baghdad.

Iraqis say they are increasingly concerned about the possibility of a confrontation between the US and Iran — both Iraqi allies — on their soil.

The evacuations “put Iraqis in a state of apprehension”, said Hamed al-Mutlag, a former MP. “If the escalation between the two countries continues, we are all going to be harmed”.

Since President Donald Trump made good on a campaign promise to unilaterally pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, the US has reimposed and tightened economic sanctions to try and force Tehran back to the negotiating table.

It recently expanded its targets from Iranian fuel to metals and petrochemicals. It has also designated the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite force, as a terrorist group.

A plethora of Iraqi Shia militias are backed by Tehran, although many have also been made part of the state’s official security forces after combating the Sunni extremists Isis.