U.S. companies evacuate major air base in Iraq

Hundreds of Americans working with the Iraqi government evacuated Balad air base and were moved to Baghdad

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As Islamist militants vowed to reach Baghdad, U.S. companies evacuated hundreds of Americans working with the Iraqi government from a major air base on Thursday, Agence France-Presse reported U.S. officials as saying.

A U.S. defense official confirmed that “a few hundred” American contractors from Balad air base, 80 kilometers north of the capital, were being moved to Baghdad for security reasons.

“We can confirm that U.S. citizens under contract to the government of Iraq in support of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program in Iraq are being temporarily relocated by their companies due to security concerns in the area,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Militants are closing fast on the capital Baghdad after sweeping up a huge swathe of predominantly Sunni Arab territory in northern and north-central Iraq since launching their offensive in the city of Mosul late on Monday.

Psaki stressed, however, that the U.S. embassy in Baghdad was still operating, saying “the status of the staffing at the U.S. embassy and consulates has not changed.”

The evacuation of Balad was being handled by the companies and did not involve the U.S. government, a defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said.

“It’s their people. It’s their planes,” the official told WHO.

The contractors were hired by the Iraqi government and working on programs related to F-16 fighter jets. They are not on the U.S. government’s payroll.

Balad air base was once one of the world’s busiest airports and housed some 36,000 American personnel before it was placed under Iraqi control in November 2011.

The 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing was the last unit to leave the base, which occupied 25 square kilometers and had a 20-kilometer security perimeter.

While officials ruled out putting U.S. troops back on the ground in Iraq, President Barack Obama is weighing a range of short-term military options, including airstrikes.

“We do have a stake in making sure that these jihadists are not getting a permanent foothold,” The Associated Press quoted Obama as saying in the Oval Office.

Obama, in his first comments on the deteriorating situation, said it was clear Iraq needed additional assistance from the U.S. and the international community given the lightning gains by the militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Republican lawmakers pinned some of the blame for the escalating violence on Obama’s reluctance to re-engage in a conflict he has long opposed.

(With AFP and the Associated Press)

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