US threatens to close embassy in Iraq unless Iranian-backed militias halt attacks

US threatens to close embassy in Iraq unless Iranian-backed militias halt attacks
Source: Azad Lashkari, Reuters
The move could create a war-situation in Iraq and affect American efforts to fight the Islamic State and to reduce the Iranian influence in the region

The Trump administration has threatened to close the United States Embassy in Baghdad if the Iraqi government fails to prevent Iranian-backed militias from targeting US personnel in the country.

On Monday, September 28, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale met with Iraq’s ambassador to the US Fareed Yaseen, to notify him of the US government’s stand to withdraw diplomats from Baghdad. The meeting followed a warning from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the Iraqi President Barham Salih on September 20.

“We never comment on the Secretary’s private diplomatic conversations with foreign leaders … Iran-backed groups launching rockets at our Embassy are a danger not only to us but to the Government of Iraq,” the US State Department said in a statement.

US Ambassador to Iraq Matthew Tueller, also had a discussion over the matter with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein last week.

US officials told CNN that the Trump administration had emphasized the seriousness of the consideration by letting the Iraqi leadership know at multiple levels that the attacks by Iran-sponsored militant groups needed to stop, or the American Embassy in Baghdad would be closed.

According to reports, the strikes launched by the militias include low-level but potentially deadly rocket and mortar attacks.

On September 28, the Iraqi military stated that a rocket killed two Iraqi women and three children in a house near the Baghdad airport, where US troops were based. There have been several rocket attacks at sites with the American presence over the last two years.

Some experts believe that while the US government’s plan to shut down its Embassy in Baghdad would mitigate the threat of life looming over US diplomats in Iraq, it could also spoil years of efforts by the US to stabilize the Iraqi government and reduce the influence of neighboring Iran. A decision to close the American Embassy could also prompt other nations to withdraw their diplomats from Iraq.

A former senior diplomat to Iraq Barbara A. Leaf criticized Washington’s plan to shut down the embassy arguing that it could hand Iran and Iraqi militias “a propaganda victory of epic proportions” and threatening to pull out was “very risky and potentially counterproductive.”

“This has stimulated an already raging appetite on the part of the Iranian-affiliated militias to push harder for what they and Iran want — the U.S. out altogether,” Leaf said.

“And that would significantly impair our own national security interests, as well as potentially destabilize Iraq further down the road,” she added.

The US pulling its diplomats out of Baghdad has led to a concern in Iraq that such a step would likely be followed by military action from Washington against the militias, creating a war-situation in the region.

Last week, renowned Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr appealed to all sides to exercise restraint and not turn Iraq into a battlefront.

Currently, there are more than 5,000 US troops stationed in Iraq. This number is expected to reduce to 3,000 by the end of October, according to a statement given by the US military earlier this month.

In the run-up to the November 3 presidential election, President Donald Trump has increased the diplomatic offensive against Iran. Should the US curtail its military and diplomatic presence in Iraq at this juncture, it is likely to result in the escalation of its confrontation with the Iranian government.

Reuters quoted a Western diplomat saying that the Trump administration did not “want to be limited in their options” to act against Iran or pro-Iranian militias in Iraq. The diplomat added that he expected Washington would respond with “strikes.”

In a statement on September 28, the Pentagon said that it was committed to supporting Iraq’s long-term “security, stability, and prosperity” and the crackdown on Islamic State would continue.

In August, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi met with Trump in Washington to change his mind on decreasing the presence of American troops in Iraq. However, the White House assured support to al-Kadhimi, which is why Pompeo’s recent threat to call US diplomats back has caught Iraq off-guard.

On September 29, al-Kadhimi claimed that European diplomats were also considering leaving Baghdad. He said that the warnings from the global community were “not directed against the Iraqi government,” but against the conditions of the country.”

“The closure of embassies means not cooperating with states in the economic, cultural and military aspects, in light of the great challenges facing Iraq,” al-Kadhimi added.

If the US Embassy in Baghdad is closed, it would also indicate – as The New York Times suggests – the straining of relations between Washington and the Iraqi Prime Minister, who the White House backed as somebody who could control the Iranian impact on Baghdad and restore political stability in the country.

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