The U.S. ordered its non-emergency government employees to leave Iraq, a week after Secretary of State Michael Pompeo made an unannounced visit to discuss what he said was the rising threat from neighboring Iran.The security alert includes staff at the embassy in Baghdad and the consulate in Erbil, in the majority Kurdish region to the north. A statement attributed the imminent departures to an “increased threat stream,” without elaborating. The move follows the withdrawal of employees from the U.S. consulate in Basra in September, when the Trump administration pointed the finger at Iran-backed Shiite militias.After a year of tightening unilateral U.S. sanctions on Tehran, tension has suddenly spiked in the Gulf, where dangers posed to shipping or oil facilities in the world’s largest oil-exporting region have the potential to rattle global markets.
On the first anniversary of President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran threatened this month to gradually withdraw too. On Tuesday, an Iran-backed Yemeni rebel group attacked oil facilities in Saudi Arabia, forcing it to suspend a key pipeline. That followed a series of unexplained sabotage attacks earlier in the week on commercial vessels heading for the Strait of Hormuz, the global shipping choke-point at the mouth of the Gulf.
The series of events, combined with a Pentagon decision to send an aircraft carrier group to the Middle East to ward off what it called “heightened Iranian readiness” to attack U.S. interests, has increased concerns of a military confrontation, whether deliberate or otherwise.
On Tuesday, Trump himself broached the subject of war with Iran, denying a report in the New York Times that the U.S. had updated its military planning for Iran, but adding that he’d send “a hell of a lot more” troops than the 120,000 mentioned if needed.
Pompeo canceled a trip to Germany last week in order to make the unannounced visit to Baghdad, where he spoke with Iraqi leaders about an “escalating” threat from Iran and possible “big energy deals” to help wean the Iraqi economy away from its neighbor.
Shiite Muslim Iran has played a prominent role in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 put Iraq’s majority Shiite community in power. Tehran supports several powerful Shiite militias in Iraq, including some who played a significant role in the fight against Islamic State.
Trump says Iran’s missile program and support for militant groups is destabilizing the Mideast region and he has made countering the Islamic Republic a primary focus of his foreign policy, encouraged by Iranian foes led by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel.
In recent weeks, the U.S. ratcheted up the pressure on ruling clerics by scrapping waivers that had allowed some countries to carry on importing Iranian crude, and designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s elite military unit, as a terrorist organization.
The attacks on oil infrastructure further stoked geopolitical uncertainty. While Iran backs the Houthi rebels who said they carried out the drone strikes on Tuesday, no country or group has been assigned direct blame, or taken responsibility, for the reported sabotage on Sunday of four ships, including two Saudi crude tankers, heading for the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran denied any involvement and earlier top officials had alluded to a coming campaign of misinformation. Last month, its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned that the targeting of his nation could take a dangerous turn and trigger a wider crisis.
“I don’t discount the ‘B Team’ plotting an ‘accident’ anywhere in the region,” Zarif said in New York, referring to a group of officials including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman he said were set on changing the regime in Iran.
Zarif visited India this week and traveled to Japan on Wednesday as sanctioned Iran seeks an economic lifeline from Asia.
U.S. officials have said the deployment of the carrier group and B-52 bombers to the Gulf was triggered by the perception of an increased threat against U.S. personnel from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria.
That assessment was disowned on Tuesday during a Pentagon briefing by the British deputy commander of the international campaign to defeat Islamic State, Major General Christopher Ghika. In an unusual airing of differences, the U.S. Central Command then issued a statement rejecting Ghika’s comments as “running counter to the identified credible threats available to intelligence.”
German officials on Wednesday said the country wasn’t aware of a “concrete threat” or change to the security situation in Iraq.
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