German army halts Iraq military training amid Iran tensions
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German army halts Iraq military training amid Iran tensions

Berlin says ‘no concrete threat’ against its forces in the region, but decision comes after State Department orders non-emergency US embassy staff to leave Baghdad and Erbil

In this photo taken on February 18, 2016, German military experts work on an army vehicle at a workshop for Peshmerga forces, in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
In this photo taken on February 18, 2016, German military experts work on an army vehicle at a workshop for Peshmerga forces, in Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. (SAFIN HAMED / AFP)

Germany has halted its training of soldiers in Iraq, a defense ministry spokesman said Wednesday, as tensions rose between neighboring Iran and the United States.

“The German army has suspended the training,” defense ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff said, adding that there was a “generally heightened alert, awareness” for soldiers currently operating in the region.

Flosdorff said training may well resume in the coming days and that there was “no concrete threat” at the moment.

Germany has about 160 soldiers deployed in Iraq — 60 in Taji, to the north of Baghdad, and 100 in Erbil, in Kurdish-controlled territory.

Washington has ramped up pressure on Tehran in recent days, accusing Iran of planning unspecified “imminent” attacks in the region, and bolstering the American military presence in the Gulf.

Underscoring what the US says is heightened risk to American military personnel, the US Embassy in Baghdad on Wednesday ordered all nonessential, non-emergency government staff to leave Iraq immediately.

A State Department advisory announcing the partial embassy closures warned of numerous “terrorist and insurgent groups” active in Iraq, including “anti-US sectarian militias” who could “threaten US citizens and Western companies throughout Iraq.”

The US last year shut its consulate in the protest-hit southern Iraqi city of Basra, blaming “indirect fire” by Iran-backed forces.

In this file photo from August 20, 2017, US Army soldiers stand next to a guided-missile launcher, a few miles from the frontline, in the village of Abu Ghaddur, east of Tal Afar, Iraq. (AP Photo/Balint Szlanko, File)

Tensions have sharply escalated between Washington and Tehran since US President Donald Trump withdrew last May from the 2015 international Iran nuclear deal, which removed sanctions in exchange for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who has made rolling back Iranian influence in the region a top priority — last week paid a surprise trip to Baghdad in a move to bolster ties with Iraq.

He has declined to go into further detail on the alleged plot, which has been met with skepticism in numerous quarters, including from Democratic lawmakers who fear Trump’s administration is seeking to spark a war with Iran.

A State Department spokesman on Wednesday told AFP the departure of non-emergency personnel came in response to “the increased threat stream we are seeing in Iraq.”

The Pentagon has said its deployments were “in response to indications of heightened Iranian readiness to conduct offensive operations against US forces and our interests.”

But Russia, a major backer of Tehran which has blamed the current crisis on Washington’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal, expressed concern Wednesday that tensions keep escalating despite assurances from Pompeo.

US President Donald Trump is flanked by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, as he speaks during a press conference after a summit of heads of state and government at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on July 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)

Germany has also expressed concern about the US-Iran tensions, warning of a military escalation and saying it supports all measures for a peaceful solution.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said on Wednesday that, “obviously, we are watching the increasing tensions in the region with big concern and welcome any measure that is aimed at a peaceful solution.”

Demmer added that the government condemns all acts that escalate the situation in the region further.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr said despite the tension, the German government has not reduced its staff at the embassies in Iraq and Iran.

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