US warns Iraq of embassy closure in Baghdad if attacks by Iran-backed groups persist

Members of Iraq's security forces stand guard outside one of the gates of the US embassy in Baghdad's Green Zone. (AFP)

The Trump administration has warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government does not take swift and decisive action to end persistent rocket and other attacks by Iranian-backed militias and rogue armed elements on American and allied interests in the country, US, Iraqi and other officials said Monday.

The warning came as Iraqi security officials said a Katyusha rocket hit near Baghdad airport, killing three Iraqi civilians and severely wounding two others.

A US official said the administration’s warning was clear and given to both Iraq’s president and prime minister but that it was not an imminent ultimatum. There should be “no confusion” among Iraqi leaders about how seriously the US takes the threat to its personnel and property, according to the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Read more: US threatens Baghdad with sanctions over Iran-backed militia attacks in Iraq: Sources

The warning signals the administration’s increasing frustration and anger with ongoing rocket fire from Iranian-supported groups on or near the vast US Embassy compound in Baghdad as it steps up pressure on Iran with the re-imposition of crippling sanctions.

However, closing the embassy and withdrawing US personnel from Baghdad would signal a significant retreat from a country in which successive administrations have invested massive amounts of money and lives.

An Iraqi security officer walks near the Arch of Victory memorial in the Green Zone of Baghdad, Iraq on June 24, 2019. (Reuters)

An Iraqi security officer walks near the Arch of Victory memorial in the Green Zone of Baghdad, Iraq on June 24, 2019. (Reuters)

The threat to evacuate the embassy, which has stoked concerns in Baghdad of a diplomatic crisis, was first delivered to President Barham Saleh on Tuesday in a phone call with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Iraqi officials said. Pompeo then repeated the warning to Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on Saturday, the officials said.

Pompeo told Saleh that if the US presence continues to be targeted, measures would be taken to close the embassy and a “strong and violent” response would follow against the groups responsible for the attacks, according to three Iraqi officials with knowledge of the call.

Pompeo went further with al-Kadhimi on Saturday, telling the prime minister that the US will initiate plans to withdraw from the embassy, according to the Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

An official announcement has not been made by the Americans. But the Trump administration has not been shy about expressing its anger and concern about continuing rocket attacks by Iranian-backed groups on or near the embassy compound.

Iraqi security forces stand guard in front of the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP)

Iraqi security forces stand guard in front of the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq, Jan. 1, 2020. (AP)

In a tangible sign of a strain in US-Iraq relations, the State Department shortened an Iran sanctions waiver deadline by 60 days last week. The previous waiver, crucial for Iraq to import badly needed Iranian gas to meet power demands, gave the government 120 days.

Without the waiver, Iraq would suffer crippling sanctions barring it access to US dollars.

Despite comments from US officials that a deadline on closing the embassy is not in place, Iraqi officials appeared to be under the impression they have until the waiver expires in two months’ time to take action.

“America will observe what measures the government of Iraq takes within two months,” one senior Iraqi official said. During this time, al-Kadhimi’s administration must halt the targeting of foreign missions, military installations and logistics convoys destined for the US-led coalition or else, “aggressive” action would follow, the official said.

Iraq’s leadership is feeling the heat.

Al-Kadhimi, Saleh and Parliament Speaker Mohamed al-Halbousi held a meeting late Sunday in which all three leaders said they supported measures to bring arms under the authority of the state and to prevent the targeting of diplomatic missions.

So far, Iraqi authorities have redistributed some security forces inside the Green Zone.

Iraq's President Barham Salih instructs newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad. (File photo: Reuters)

Iraq's President Barham Salih instructs newly appointed Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi in Baghdad. (File photo: Reuters)

The Iraqi officials also said two factors might determine whether Iraq’s leadership can walk back from an impending diplomatic crisis: Security fallout from protests planned in the coming weeks to mark one year since mass anti-government demonstrations began, and domestic politics inside the US ahead of the November federal election.

“We expect large crowds,” said one official of the protests. “And we expect it will impact American thinking.”

Two Western diplomats said they had been informed that the US has started the process of closing its sprawling facility inside the heavily fortified Green Zone, but could not provide details. The US Embassy declined to comment.

The US embassy compound is pictured in Baghdad's Green Zone on May 20, 2019 in the Iraqi capital.

The US embassy compound is pictured in Baghdad's Green Zone on May 20, 2019 in the Iraqi capital.

Closing the facility, which is by physical size the largest US diplomatic mission in the world, is expected to be a complex and time-consuming process. The embassy was already functioning at minimum levels since March due to the coronavirus and ongoing security threats.

Diplomats were told the US had already started the process of closing but would “re-evaluate while progressing,” one Western official said, suggesting the decision was reversible if security inside the Green Zone improved.

In 2018, Pompeo ordered the closure of the US consulate in the southern Iraqi city of Basra due to attacks by Iranian-backed militias.

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Last Update: Monday, 28 September 2020 KSA 19:51 - GMT 16:51
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