The United States announced on Friday it will effectively close its consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra and relocate diplomatic personnel assigned there following increasing threats from Iran and Iran-backed militia, including rocket fire.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered that all but emergency staff leave Basra, with consular duties to be taken over by the embassy in Baghdad. Basra is Iraq’s main port and one of its largest cities.
The decision adds to mounting tension between the United States and Iran, which is the target of increasing US economic sanctions.
Pompeo, as he explained the move, renewed a warning that the United States would hold Iran directly responsible for attacks on Americans and US diplomatic facilities.
It followed recent rocket attacks that Pompeo said were directed at the consulate in Basra.
Pompeo, who has made rolling back Iranian influence in the region a top priority, blamed militias linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards for “indirect fire” -- which usually means rockets or artillery -- against the US consulate.
“I have advised the government of Iran that the United States will hold Iran directly responsible for any harm to Americans or to our diplomatic facilities in Iraq or elsewhere and whether perpetrated by Iranian forces directly or by associated proxy militias,” he said in a statement while in New York to attend the UN General Assembly.
“I have made clear that Iran should understand that the United States will respond promptly and appropriately to any such attacks,” he added.
Pompeo did not explicitly say whether a US response was imminent, however, and other US officials did not disclose potential response options.
Still, Pompeo said the threats against US personnel and facilities in Iraq were “increasing and specific” and added that Washington was working with Iraqi forces and US allies to address them.
“We look to all international parties interested in peace and stability in Iraq and the region to reinforce our message to Iran regarding the unacceptability of their behavior,” he said.
Earlier this month three mortar rounds also hit the fortified Green Zone area in Baghdad, home to the US embassy, without causing injuries and with the perpetrators unclear.
Diplomatic security is a key priority for the United States and Pompeo, who as a congressman went on the offensive against former secretary of state Hillary Clinton over a deadly attack on the US consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi.
'Chaos, death and destruction'
In a statement, the US State Department said the consulate was placed on “ordered departure,” which technically involves a drawdown in staff. Although some personnel could remain on the diplomatic compound, the move is believed to effectively close the consulate, at least temporarily.
The decision came days after US President Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani exchanged taunts at the United Nations General Assembly, with Trump vowing more sanctions and accusing Iran's leaders of sowing “chaos, death and destruction.”
Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, speaking at a nearby event in New York on Tuesday, warned “there will indeed be hell to pay” if Iran crosses the United States, its allies or harms US citizens.
In May, Trump withdrew the United States from an international deal to put curbs on Iran's nuclear program in exchange for easing sanctions.
Basra has already been rocked by violent protests seen by experts as a rejection of the Iraqi political establishment that has held on to power.
Protesters in Basra ransacked and torched Iraqi government buildings this month and the Iranian consulate was set alight by demonstrators shouting condemnation of what many see as Iran's sway over Iraq's affairs.
For the first time in several years, mortar shells also landed this month inside Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, which houses parliament, government buildings and many foreign embassies.