As Iran tensions mount, US orders all nonessential staff to leave Iraq

Employees at missions in Baghdad and in Erbil told to leave; visa services temporarily suspended

Illustrative photo of the US embassy under construction as seen from across the Tigris river in Baghdad, Iraq, May 19, 2007. (AP Photo)
Illustrative photo of the US embassy under construction as seen from across the Tigris river in Baghdad, Iraq, May 19, 2007. (AP Photo)

The US embassy in Iraq said the State Department has ordered all nonessential, non-emergency government staff to leave the country right away amid escalating tensions with Iran.

The alert, published on the embassy’s website on Wednesday, came after Washington last week said it had detected new and urgent threats from Iran and its proxy forces in the region targeting Americans and American interests.

In light of the pullout, visa services at the embassy and the US consulate in Erbil were to be suspended, the embassy notified.

“The US government has limited ability to provide emergency services to US citizens in Iraq,” the alert added.

On Sunday, the embassy advised Americans to avoid travel to Iraq, citing “heightened tensions.”

The Iraq evacuation order came after on Tuesday Saudi oil facilities were attacked by Iran-backed Houthi rebels from Yemen, and on Sunday four oil tankers — two of which were Saudi — were damaged as they lay off the coast of the United Arab Emirates by what Gulf officials described as sabotage. Of the other two tankers, one was Norwegian and the other Emirati.

The Emirati-flagged oil tanker A. Michel, May 13, 2019, one of four ships damaged in what Gulf officials called a “sabotage” attack off the coast of the United Arab Emirates. (UAE National Media Council via AP)

However, the international coalition in Iraq and Syria said Tuesday its troops were not feeling any intensified threat from Iran in the region, seemingly contrary to Trump administration warnings.

“There has been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” Major General Chris Ghika, a British spokesman for the force, told reporters via teleconference at the Pentagon.

“We’ve seen no change in the posture or laydown” of the Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iraqi paramilitary group with close ties to Tehran, Ghika said.

“Of course PMF is a very broad range of groups. Many of them are compliant and we have seen no change in their posture since the recent exchange between the US and Iran.”

Ghika denied he was contradicting recent alarms raised by top officials in US President Donald Trump’s administration that Iran was plotting some sort of attack in the Gulf region, perhaps targeting US forces in Iraq and Syria.

To meet the threat, the Pentagon has accelerated the deployment of an aircraft carrier task force to the Gulf and accompanied it with several B-52 bombers, a Patriot missile battery and an amphibious assault ship.

“I don’t think we’re out of step with the White House at all,” Ghika said.

A helicopter loads cargo onto the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean Sea as the ship’s strike group makes its way to the Persian Gulf, May 8, 2019. (US Navy/Michael Singley)

Tensions in the region have risen since Trump withdrew America from the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, and restored US sanctions that have pushed Iran’s economy into crisis. Last week, Iran warned it would begin enriching uranium at higher levels in 60 days if world powers failed to negotiate new terms for the deal.

The so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action saw Iran dismantle the weapons-capable aspects of its nuclear program in return for the lifting of sanctions. The other partners to the pact — Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany — have all said they want to maintain the agreement but are struggling to do so in the face of the severe US sanctions.

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