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US issues security alert ordering non-emergency staff to depart Iraq

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York US on 26 January 2019 [Atılgan Özdil/Anadolu Agency]
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York US on 26 January 2019 [Atılgan Özdil/Anadolu Agency]

The US State Department has issued a security alert and ordered staff to evacuate Iraq amid escalating tensions with neighbouring Iran. The alert posted on the US embassy in Iraq today read: “The U.S. State Department has ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. Government employees from Iraq, both at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the U.S. Consulate in Erbil.  Normal visa services at both posts will be temporarily suspended. The U.S. government has limited ability to provide emergency services to US citizens in Iraq.”

A US embassy spokesperson is reported by the Financial Times saying that US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, had taken the decision to withdraw because of “the increased threat stream we are seeing in Iraq”. The spokesperson declined to say how, when, or how many staff were leaving, citing security reasons.

No details of the threat facing US officials in Iraq were given and there are some doubts over the motivation for issuing the alert. British deputy commander of the anti-Daesh coalition, Major General Christopher Ghika, was quoted saying yesterday 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,” he said according to the FT.

READ: Iraq investigates tripling costs at state-run oil company

Ghika also said that “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 security alert, which contradicts Ghika’s assessment of the threat, comes amid fears that tensions in the region are spiralling out of control in recent weeks, with an attack on Saudi oil tankers in the Gulf yesterday. Reports also emerged of Trump’s administration plans to send up to 120,000 troops to the Middle East. Last week the US deployed carrier bombers and other military assets to the region, citing what it claimed were Iran’s “escalatory actions”.

Pompeo has doubled down on the need to strike an aggressive pose towards Iran. Speaking at a meeting with Russian leaders in Sochi yesterday, the former director of the CIA said that 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”.

European leaders, who appear to be losing patience with their US ally, voiced their concerns over America’s escalation of tension. “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident, with an escalation that is unintended really on either side,” British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said as he arrived at a meeting in Brussels with his French and German counterparts and the EU foreign policy chief two days ago.

READ: Europeans warn US over escalating tension with Iran

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has expressed Tehran’s desire to avoid war. He is widely reported saying that Tehran was not seeking a military confrontation with the US “neither we are looking for a war, nor they [US] are, as they know that it will not be in their interests.” He described negotiations with the Trump administration as “doubly poisonous” and “ridiculous”.

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